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Date Title (Scripture Reference)
September 23, 2018 The Path to Greatness
(Mark 9:30-37) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Have you ever argued with your friends about who was better than the others? Have you ever told someone you were smarter than they were? Or maybe you bragged about how well you play the piano. Or maybe you liked to show off your new dress or your new shoes to someone. Maybe you teased someone because you could run faster than they could. For some reason it makes us feel good when are better than others. And we all feel that way sometimes.

Even the disciples felt that way sometimes. One day they were walking down the road and they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. And so Jesus told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last and servant of all.”

I wonder what Jesus meant by that. To be the best, do you have to be the worst? Or maybe he just meant that to be the best in his kingdom means not caring if you are the best. It makes me think of my nephew. Last year he joined the cross country team in high school. Cross country is where you run a really long race against 30 or 40 other kids. Well he was running in a race one time when he came upon another boy who had stopped running. He had ran so hard he didn’t think he could go on anymore. Well, my nephew could have kept running. He could have kept on going and felt good about himself because there was one more runner that he had beat. But he didn’t. He stopped, turned around and said to the boy, “Come on, you can do it. I will run with you.” And even though it took him longer to finish the race, my nephew ran with the other boy just to help him finish the race.

I don’t know if my nephew came in last place or not, but he for sure didn’t come in first place. He didn’t even beat his own time, but I think Jesus would have awarded him first place because he was a servant to the other boy. [End Children’s Sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

For years the editors of Chimes, the student newspaper at Calvin College, published a spoof edition once a year. Sometimes the spoof would be just like another edition of the newspaper. At other times they would spoof different publications. One year they published The Bananer, a spoof of the denomination’s magazine, The Banner. When Roxann and I were at Calvin, they published a spoof edition of the Academic Course Catalogue. In it they note that anyone from the community could audit a course for $15, a 96% reduction of the cost of tuition. “This means,” they wrote, “that over the course of a four-year period, students pay $480 for the knowledge and learning and $23,728 for the credit.”

I don’t suppose I need to tell a room half full of graduate students and professors that our education system in the United States values the practical and pragmatic aspects of education over and above the actual education. What matters is not what a student learns and how their understanding of the world and others is expanded by that knowledge, but only if students can get a good paying job at the end of the day. What matters is not expanding our knowledge of the universe, but if our knowledge can lead to new and profitable innovations in the research park.

We tend to do something similar with Jesus. We tend to think that what really matters when it comes to Jesus is that he died on the cross to save our sins. That is the degree, the document, the deed that determines our future. Faith in Jesus is pragmatic. We believe in order to be saved. We sometimes look upon his life and ministry as if it were all just preliminary stuff he had to go through in order to get to the cross. Sure, maybe his life and ministry are examples for us. We too must be nice to others. We too should help out those who are poor and sick. We too should preach the good news that Jesus died on the cross to save us. Sure, we can learn a thing or two about how God wants us to behave from looking at Jesus, but what is most important is that we are forgiven of our sins because he died on the cross. What is most important is that we have everlasting life, we are redeemed, we are saved by the cross.

Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross goes a bit deeper than that. Last week I hope we got a sense that the cross was more than just a transaction in which an innocent Jesus became the sacrificial lamb in order to pay the price for our sins. Last week we saw that Jesus took on the role of the Suffering Servant from the book of Isaiah. The Suffering Servant is a figure in the second half of Isaiah who undergoes God’s punishment of Israel with and for Israel. In the midst of exile, the Suffering Servant remains faithful and obedient to God. He keeps trusting in God even as Jerusalem lies in ruins and God’s people live as exiles in a foreign land. Through the Suffering Servant, then, God comes to his people to give them words of comfort and hope in the midst of their exile.

Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant not just to explain what he is doing in the event of the cross, but to demonstrate his way of being with Israel throughout his life. Mark highlights the fact that Israel remains in a kind of exile during Jesus’ day right from the beginning of the gospel. Israel remains under the rule of the pagan Romans, but John the Baptist comes and preaches at the river Jordan, at the place where Israel first crossed over into the land of Canaan under Joshua, and supposedly where the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon. Mark characterizes John’s ministry as the prophet who announces the end of Israel’s exile: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way [of return] – a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Like the Suffering Servant, Jesus’ ministry is a ministry to a people in exile. It is therefore a ministry of faithful obedience and trust in God in the midst of that exile.

The opening line of Mark’s gospel states, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word gospel means “good news,” but it was often used with regard to royal propaganda. It meant “the official decree of good news.” Mark’s “official decree of good news” is that Jesus is the Christ, the Jewish Messiah. The good news is that the King of Israel has returned. The line of David is about to be restored. That means that the exile is soon to be over.

This, however, sets Jesus in immediate opposition with Caesar, the emperor of Rome. Only Caesar could appoint someone as King over the Jews, and he had, his own puppet, Herod. But just to drive the point home, Mark adds that Jesus is “the Son of God,” for Caesar himself was claimed to be and was worshipped as “the son of god.” It is no surprise then that the nationalistic wing of the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees, soon team up with those leaders who colluded with the Romans, the Herodians. In chapter 3:6 Mark reports, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.”

Mark announces right from the beginning that Jesus is the Christ, but with regard to the characters in the gospel, everyone wonders who he is. They ask “Who is this?” (4:41) “What is this? A new teaching and with authority?” (2:27) “Why does this fellow talk like that [and claim to forgive sins]? (2:7) “Where did this man get these things? … Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Everyone wonders if Jesus is the Messiah. People report to Herod and the disciples tell Jesus that some think he is John the Baptist, others Elijah, and others one of the prophets. Finally Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter affirms, “You are the Christ.”

Of course everyone is asking this question because Jesus is not living up to the expectations of being the Jewish Messiah. He is not a warrior like King David. He has no army. He has not started a rebellion. Instead he has welcomed sinners and tax collectors into his company. He has healed the blind and the lame. He has cast out demons and fed the hungry. He has ministered to both Jew and Gentile. The first half of the gospel answers the question of Jesus identity, but with a twist. He is the Jewish Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of God, who has come to redeem God’s people from exile, but God’s people includes the Gentiles, and sinners, and tax-collectors, and maybe even the Pharisees.   Jesus is the Messiah, but he redefines what it means to be the Messiah.

Let me suggest that the second half of Mark’s gospel turns on the question of how Jesus will bring both Jews and Gentiles out of exile. Jesus redefines how the Messiah will fulfill his mission. Last week we read that after Peter proclaimed that Jesus is the Christ, Jesus began to tell disciples plainly that he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed into the hands of the Romans, killed, and be raised on the third day. This morning we read how he told them the same thing a second time. And Jesus tells the disciples this again a third time in 10:32. Now anytime something happens three times in a biblical story we should know it is significant. Jesus, however, doesn’t just tell his disciples about the coming cross to give them advance warning. He tells them that he is going to Jerusalem to be killed in order to show them that this is his way of being with God’s people. This is his way of completing his mission. And so it must be their way of being with others if they wish to follow him. He said it plainly in last week’s passage: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (8:34)

After each of the next two times Jesus predicts his death, he teaches his disciples what the cross means for how they are to be shaped by the cross as they live in the world. In our lesson today the disciples argue about which of them was the greatest. IN verse 35 Jesus sits them down and says, “‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all.’ He then took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.’”

The disciples argue about who is on the top of the totem pole, but they are not simply concerned about which individual is better than all the others. They are concerned about a game of power. Each one wants to make sure he gets the respect and honor he deserves. Some of us were talking the other day about how honor and respect and therefore power is determined by age within many Asian societies. In order to relate to someone properly, you have to know if they are older or younger than you. And, generally speaking, the leader of any group must be someone who is among the oldest in the group.

In Jesus’ day society ran according to a host of patron-client relationships. People with power and prestige handed out favors to those with less power and prestige in return for loyalty and services. The disciples are arguing about where each of them fits within the social ranking of the group. Who deserves to be honored and served by the others, and which one has the power and prestige to hand out favors. My guess is they were arguing about who was closest to Jesus. Should Thomas buddy up to Peter or John in order to curry favor with Jesus?

Jesus, however, turns this system on its head. He says the greatest in the kingdom of God is not the one who stands above others and hands out favors. The greatest is not the one who lends you an air of respectability and social standing. No, the greatest is the last person, the one at the bottom of the social ranking. The greatest is the one who serves everyone and has no power or prestige to hand out favors. If the disciples were to have a dinner party, they would want to invite the most respected people in their community so that they would be seen to be on their social level. Their social ranking would increase even more if they then received an invitation in return to attend a party given by one of these social elites. But Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”  If you want to curry my favor, if you want to get close to me, invite someone to your party with no social standing. Invite someone to your party who is powerless and cannot pay you back.

Our gospel lesson this morning begins with Jesus telling his disciples that the way he is going to fulfill his mission is to give up his power. He is going to submit to the powers of the religious leaders, the powers of Rome, and even the power of death. He does so because sin has to do with power. We sin when we exert our own power over against others. We sin when we seek to trust in our own power instead of in God. But Jesus overcomes sin by submitting to its power and dying so that he can be raised again on the third day. We are saved by the cross because through it Jesus takes on the guilt of our sin and also because Jesus overcomes the power of sin. Jesus plays be the rules of the kingdom rather than by the rules of the world.

Jesus took on the guilt of our sin and overcame the power of sin so that we might come out of exile and back into communion with God. But the world is in many ways still living in exile from God. The world still functions as though being the best and the greatest is what really matters. Nations still struggle to make themselves great. CEO’s run their companies as though profit and beating the competition takes precedent over caring for the environment, paying workers a living wage, and providing the benefits people need for a full life. And individuals continue to be imprisoned by the idols of success and money.

But Jesus frees us from all the power games we are tempted to play in our lives. He frees us from wondering, like the disciples, who among us is the greatest, or who among us is the richest, or who among us is the most brilliant. But he not only frees us from those things, he frees us to live freely for others. Instead of spending our time and energy vying for power and seeking the favor of those who have more power, Jesus invites us to live our lives shaped by his cross. He invites us to use the power we have to serve others. He invites us to use the power we have for the sake of the powerless. He invites us to demonstrate our trust and obedience and hope in the power of God rather than in the powers of this world. We thus come alongside those who have been defeated, or oppressed, or given up in the face of the power games of this world. Like my nephew we stop and run a different race. We walk along with the least of these and so give them comfort and hope as we point them to the cross of Christ. Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him for he took up his cross and gave up his power for us.

September 16, 2018 Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?
(Isaiah 50; Mark 8:27-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So one of the reasons we come to church is to be with God, right? Well, if God is in heaven, maybe we could get closer to God if we got a little bit higher. [steps up a step ladder] Do you think I am closer to God now? Well, what if I went a little higher? Am I closer to God now? No, because God is already here, isn’t he. We can’t do anything to get closer to make ourselves closer to God because he is already here.

We can’t make ourselves closer to God, but sometimes we think we can do things to make God love us. Sometimes we think that if we obey all God’s commands, that God will love us more. It is sort of like stepping up on a ladder trying to get closer to God. [Steps up] And then we think if we go to church every Sunday and pray every day, God will love us more [steps up]. We sometimes think that we have to make God love us.

But the Apostle Paul said, “God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In fact God loved us before we could even do anything. He loved us when we were just little babies. We can’t do anything to make God love us because he loves us already. [End Children’s Sermon]

One day Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in a waiting room. She is sitting on a couch facing a wall with the message “Welcome! Everything is fine.” She is invited into an office by a gentleman named Michael who sits her down and proceeds to tell her that she has died but that she is in the “Good Place.” Eleanor, however, realizes immediately that she is not supposed to be in the paradise that is the Good Place. While everyone else talks of all the amazingly good things they did on earth, like teach moral philosophy, or open an orphanage in Haiti, she was and remains a completely self-absorbed person. She only acts in her own interest and she refuses to take responsibility or to be responsible for anything.

The show, “The Good Place,” depicts the Good Place as if it were a paradise produced by a computer program designed by Michael, who is called the Architect. The plot revolves around the fact that after Eleanor show up, things start malfunctioning and the Good Place begins to fall apart. Eleanor soon realizes that she is the virus that is causing the whole system to crash. She tries to find a way to fix things without having to reveal that she is not supposed to be there. When a solution presents itself but then falls through she says, “Darn! I was almost handed the perfect solution to all my problems without having to work for it at all, and now it’s gone. Why do bad things always happen to mediocre people?”[1]

It is assumed in the Good Place that we humans merit the judgements we receive. The people who are in the Good Place have all earned their place. Likewise, all the people in the “Bad Place” deserve to be there. No matter how often we preachers preach about the grace of God, this is probably our default mode of thinking. We also believe that God’s judgements reflect what we merit.

Our passage from Isaiah seems to uphold this way of thinking:

Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away? Or to which of my creditors did I sell you? Because of your sins you were sold; because of your transgressions your mother was sent away. (Isaiah 50:12)

The Israelites have received what they deserve. They sinned and so were sent away into exile. They turned away from God, so God turned away from them.

I have been making the case over the past several weeks that our God, the God, is a humble God. I have noted how humility is an essential aspect of the Trinity which exists- Father, Son and Holy Spirit - as a community of love and mutual submission. Two weeks ago we saw how God uses his power in a humble way, not over against others, but for and with them. But when it comes to the judgements of God, when Israel is sent into exile, when God punishes people, is he not using his power over against them? How can I argue that God is a humble God when God seems to be so capricious in his judgment of Israel and of the nations?

Part of the problem is that when we assume that we should merit what we receive, that we should earn our rewards and our punishments, then God can seem to be a capricious, unmerciful, and arrogant judge. We have the same attitude as Eleanor and ask, “Why do bad things happen to mediocre people?” We think that we can’t possibly be bad enough to deserve God’s judgment. We assume that we are at least mediocre, that we at least have been good enough to deserve entry into “The Good Place,” and to receive God’s blessings. So if bad things happen to us, we tend to feel as though we are under God’s judgment, but then we go back on the first premise; we cannot believe that we are judged according to our merit. God must be capricious and arrogant. We conclude that God is a judgmental God, a God who acts over against us, not for and with us. God appears arrogant rather than humble.

We see a different picture of God, however, if we look more closely at our lesson from Isaiah. The first mistake people often make when looking at God’s judgments in the Bible is that they tend to look at God’s judgments in isolation. They forget the larger story. Isaiah, however, reminds us of the larger story right from the beginning. “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce with which I sent her away?” he asks. The larger story is that God’s judgement doesn’t come out of the blue but in the context of a relationship with Israel. Israel was God’s chosen people, his bride, with whom he made a covenant of love. God’s relationship with Israel begins not with not God being over against them, but with God acting for and with them. God’s judgement of Israel, first of all, takes place in the context of God’s love for Israel.

This should remind us of why God made his covenant with Israel. In the first place, God entered into this special relationship with Israel not because Israel was the greatest nation, or the most righteous nation, or even for the sake of Israel. God chose Israel for the sake of all the nations, so that through Israel God could bring all the nations to him and bless them. All of God’s actions with Israel, both his saving actions and his judgements, are actions that are for and with humanity. God came to dwell in the temple of Israel in order to be with all of humanity. God’s judgements upon Israel therefore come after his being for and with Israel in order to be for and with humanity. So, second, the purpose of God’s judgements over Israel is so that the nations might learn from Israel’s mistakes.

Third, we should note that Isaiah points out that God has sent Israel into exile not only for her sins, not only because she merits punishment through disobedience, but also because she has failed to trust in God. In verse 2 God says, “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no one to answer? Was my arm too short to deliver you? Do I lack the strength to rescue you?” God came to Israel, God called to Israel to be with and for her, to rescue her and deliver her. But they did not receive God. They did not trust God. They did not answer.

This leads us to the forth thing we must note about God’s judgments: they are natural consequences of our actions and our failure to trust. Verse 11 serves as a summary or conclusion to verses 1-3, “But now, all you who light fires and provide yourselves with flaming torches, go, walk in the light of your fires.” If we trust in ourselves rather than God, we will walk by the light of our own fires. This will lead us away from God and into paths of disobedience. And moving away from God, being away from God, is the essence of God’s judgement against someone. We can’t make ourselves closer to God, or for God love us, but we can ignore his presence and turn away from him and his ways. And so God punishes Israel by sending her into exile. Such judgment is indeed merited by one’s failure to trust in God and by one’s disobedience. If we choose to walk away from God, God may allow us to do so.

But, fifth, such judgment comes only after God’s many attempts to bring us back to him. The nation of Israel, that is the northern 10 tribes, was sent into exile only after hundreds and hundreds of years of idolatry, injustice and of trusting in the power of other nations rather than God. The nation of Judah, the southern 2 tribes, was also sent into exile after seeing what happened to Israel just a few generations later for the same things. Moreover, God’s judgments upon Israel and Judah only come after years and years of God’s patience and long-suffering. Both are sent into exile after dozens of prophets came to them to call them back to God. “When I came, why was there no one? When I called, why was there no answer?”

God’s judgments are not the judgements of a capricious, arrogant, power-hungry god. They are the natural results of our failure to trust in and obey God, and they come in the context of and after many attempts by God for him to be with us and for us. But we prefer to think that we are good enough on our own. We continue to think that mediocre gets us a passing grade. We blind ourselves to the depths of our rebellion and we refuse to see that any path that depends upon us rather than upon God leads us away from God.

But even in the midst of God’s judgment, God seeks to meet us with his grace. Chapter 50 of Isaiah is divided into three parts. The first part, verses 1-3, deals with Judah’s disobedience as we have seen. The second part, verse 5-9, turns to this figure called the Suffering Servant who keeps making appearances in the second half of Isaiah. The third part, verses 10 and 11, provide summaries or a conclusion to each section, verse 10 summarizes 4-9, and 11 summarizes 1-3.

Now Christians immediately assume that the Suffering Servant is Jesus. It is true that Jesus lays claim to this figure, but before we turn to Jesus, we ought to see how and who the Suffering Servant is in the context of Isaiah.  In chapter 42 the Servant is introduced and he seems to be an individual: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold … I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.” But in chapter 49 the Servant seems to be the nation of Israel, “He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.’” Isaiah thus speaks of Israel, or maybe a part of Israel, maybe a faithful remnant of Israel, as a single person, just as the prophets often personify unfaithful Israel as an unfaithful wife.

In our text we see the continued faithfulness of this Servant. The Servant seems to be a faithful remnant of Israel through whom God continues to be with his people even in the midst of judgment. I would give the Hebrew Bible, which was largely put together and edited during Israel’s exile as evidence of such a faithful remnant. This results in three more ways in which God’s judgments prove to be the acts not of an arrogant and capricious God, but of a loving, merciful, and humble God. First, in contrast to unfaithful Israel, the Servant is given “a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.” The Servant listens to God. He is teachable. He is obedient, and so through the Servant God’s words of comfort can come to God’s people.

Second, unlike unfaithful Israel, the Servant continues to trust in God. He says in verse 7, “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame. He who vindicates me is near.” In the midst of Israel’s exile, the Suffering Servant offers an example of one who continues to trust in God. And so the Suffering Servant offers true hope. In verse 10, the summary, we read, “Who among you fears the Lord and obeys the word of his servant? Let the one who walks in the dark, who has no light, trust in the name of the Lord and rely on their God.”  Through the Servant Israel learns that they can trust God even in the midst of God’s judgment, even as they live in exile.

Third, the Servant endures the judgment of God for the sake of others. The Servant lives in solidarity with unfaithful Israel and so endures the abuse that is meted out by Israel’s pagan captors, the Babylonians. “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.” The vicarious nature of this suffering comes to the fore in chapter 53:4, “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” The Servant endures the punishment Israel deserves for the sake of Israel, but in this way also fulfills the calling of Israel. “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant,” God says in 49:6, “to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

In each of these three ways, God continues to act through the Servant in order to act with and for his people and thus all humanity even in the midst of the judgment of Israel’s exile. Through the Servant God speaks words of comfort and encourages his people to return to obedience and to trust. Through the Servant God leads Israel back to her true vocation. God chooses the Servant to bring his salvation not only to Israel but to all the nations. God works through the Servant to demonstrate that there is yet salvation for his people and for all humanity. Judgment is not the end of the story.

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus thus lays claim to the role of the Suffering Servant. Peter confesses him to be the Christ, by which he means that Jesus is the King of Israel who has returned to bring God’s salvation to Israel and God’s judgment upon the Romans. But Jesus responds by saying that God will not work over against the Romans through him. Rather, he says he must go up to Jerusalem to be betrayed by the religious leaders into the hands of the Romans, that he will be killed, but that he will rise again after the third day. Jesus takes on the role of the Suffering Servant who takes upon himself God’s judgment of Rome, of all the nations, and of unfaithful Israel. But Jesus remains obedient to God and trusting in God even through death so that he might bring Israel and all the nations to God’s salvation.

[1] “The Eternal Shriek.” The Good Place, season 1, episode 7, NBC, October 20, 2016.

September 2, 2018 The Humble God: Divine Power
(Deuteronomy 4:4-9; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon]

What is your favorite part church? One of my favorite parts of church is after the service when we get to eat snacks. Do you like that part of church? Well one of my favorite snacks is chocolate brownies. Do you know how to make brownies? Well, all you do it add ¼ cup of water, a ½ cup of oil and an egg to some brownie mix and then bake it at 325 for 45 minutes.

So I just told you how to make brownies. Do you think you could go home and do that? No? Maybe? With some help? Well what if we were to make brownies together right now? … So Miss Roxann is going to put that in the oven in the kitchen and she has my permission to get up during the service, even if it is during my sermon, to check and see if they are done, and then we will have some nice warm brownies after the service.

We have been talking the last few weeks about how God made us to be like him.  Jesus came to save us from our sins so that we really could be like God. But God doesn’t just tell us how to be like him, he wants us to become like him by acting like him, by doing things. It is sort of like making brownies. If someone just tells you how to do it, you have an idea of how to do it. But it isn’t until you actually try to make brownies that you actually learn to do it. The Apostle James, he was Jesus’ brother, wrote, “Do not merely listen to the word [of God]. … Do what it says.”

[End of children’s sermon]

Every parent wants for their child to be like them, at least in some ways. I often make blueberry pancakes on Saturday mornings, and when I do, it reminds me of my dad. He made blueberry pancakes every Saturday morning. When my son Evan was young, maybe 6 or 7, he would help me make the pizza dough for the pizza we have every Sunday night. I was tickled that he wanted to help me. For me it seemed like his wanting to help me make the pizza dough was his way of showing that he wanted to be like me. I had hopes that by 8 years old he would be able to mix and knead the dough and then roll it out all by himself. Unfortunately, Evan soon lost interest and I went back to making the pizza dough on my own.

Making pancakes and pizza dough are rather trivial things. What parents really desire is that their children become like them in what they value, in their morals and in who and what they worship. That is what really matters to us, and that is what really matters to God, our heavenly Father.

In our gospel lesson this morning Jesus gets into an argument with the Pharisees over how it is that God wants his children, the Israelites, to be like him. The Pharisees sort of took Leviticus 11:45 as their motto for life: “I am the Lord who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”

To be holy means to be set apart and marked off as special. Leviticus has rule after rule about how the Israelites and especially priests and those who served in the temple were supposed to keep themselves clean and ritually pure. These laws specify which animals are clean and can be eaten, and which are unclean. They speak about how various things like touching dead person or bleeding or various skin diseases can make a person unclean. These cleanliness laws and “holiness codes,” as they are called, reminded the people that God was holy, set apart, and that they, the Israelites had been called and set apart from all the other nations by God. They were his chosen people.

The Pharisees took all this to heart. They believed that all Israelites should strictly follow not only the cleanliness laws that were meant for all the Israelites, but also the more strict laws that were meant for the priests and Levites. One could say that the Pharisees came up with the idea of the priesthood of all believers. But just to be sure that they were truly holy and set apart, they added an oral tradition, the traditions of the elders, which they accuse Jesus’ disciples of not following.

Now Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t just say, “Your traditions are not actually commanded by God in the scriptures. They are not biblical, so no one has to follow them if they don’t want to.” No. Instead he uses this as an opportunity to teach about the true nature of holiness.

One of the problems that has plagued Christianity and Judaism over the centuries is a distorted understanding of holiness. The Pharisees centered their theology and their practice around the fact that Israel was God’s chosen people. They sought to live up to God’s grace and mercy and love for his people by following God’s laws as best they could and by encouraging their fellow Israelites to do the same. The problem, however, was that they saw that the goal of the law was to set them apart from the Gentiles, from the “unclean,” and from “sinners” and the unrighteous. Their focus, then, was not on becoming like God in how God acted, but in how God was set apart.

The first problem with this is that it is not the law or following the law that makes someone holy. It is God who sets us apart and makes us holy. God gives us the law so that we can then learn to live in God’s ways. The law reminds us of our holiness and leads us into righteous, just and moral living. By following the law in order to make themselves holy or to maintain their separateness, the Pharisees forgot about the real importance of morality, that morality is key to what it means to be holy.

This leads to the second problem. In verses 9 through 13 Jesus points out how the Pharisees concern for holiness and maintaining purity has blinded them to justice and compassion. He rebukes them because according to their code if someone dedicates some money, or maybe the produce from a certain field to the temple, then that can never be taken back. Even if that persons’ parents become sick or destitute, they cannot use that money to help their parents. “Thus,” says Jesus in verse 13, “You nullify the word of God by your tradition.”

This has plagued Christianity over the centuries as well. When Christians have put too much emphasis on being “chosen” by God and upon holiness, upon remaining separate from the “world,” it has inevitably led to injustice. When we emphasize our own holiness and chosenness, we lose our capacity for compassion. Instead of loving our neighbor and the stranger, we vilify them. When Christians have emphasized our holiness and chosenness, it has led to ideologies that set Christians over against people of other religions and it has set some Christian nations even over against other Christian nations. It has become the basis of nationalism, racist ideologies and White Supremacism. When we view ourselves mainly as set apart and chosen, then others become the enemy and we begin to justify the use of force over against them in the name of maintaining our own purity and advancing “God’s cause.”

God, however, did not set Israel apart and make her holy so that she might be over against the other nations. In our lesson from Deuteronomy God says, “Observe [my commandments] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (4:6). Wisdom and understanding, if you recall, demonstrate the fear of the Lord. They demonstrate that a people lives in God’s ways and thus they reveal the nature and character of God. God chose Israel and set her apart so that God might bless the nations through Israel, so that the other nations might come to know who God was and what his ways are by observing Israel.

The apostle James says the same about the Christian church. In verse 18 he says, “[God] chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.” The firstfruits were the first crops harvested each year. They were often sacrificed to God as a thank offering because they symbolized that God had been faithful for another year and they were a guarantee that more was to come. Christians are the firstfruits because by redeeming us, God demonstrates that he has been faithful not just to us, but to all humanity. We are thus set apart as a promise that there is more salvation to come, that God’s salvation is for all humanity.

Jesus enters into this argument with the Pharisees because they view holiness as a way in which God’s people are set apart from the nations, which they think of as over against the nations. But Jesus demonstrates in the following stories that he is not only Israel’s Messiah, but the savior of the nations, the savior of the Gentiles. In the next story he casts out a demon from the daughter of a pagan Gentile. He then heals a deaf and mute Gentile in the Gentile region of the Decapolis. He then feeds a mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles of over 4,000 people in the wilderness. Mark highlights the fact that both the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 6 and the 4,000 in chapter 8 happen in “desert” places, and thus allude to God giving manna to the Israelites in the wilderness. The point is that God acts to feed both Jew and Gentile. Throughout these chapters Jesus acts as the true Israelite through whom God works to bless both Jew and Gentile. The implication is that to be a disciple of Jesus is to become a vessel of God through whom God acts with and for all of humanity.

This, then, brings us back to Jesus’ first critique of the Pharisees’ understanding of holiness. To be holy is to be morally set apart. James says in verse 27 that true religion is “to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” The Pharisees think this means they must be separate from a certain kind of people, but James equates being separate from the world with looking after “orphans and widows in their distress.” It means to seek justice and love mercy. Jesus also teaches in verse 15 that to be holy means that to be separate from immoral activity. “What comes out of a person is what defiles them … sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” Holiness is therefore about being moral. True religion and holiness is following God’s ways so that others see how good and just and loving and merciful God is. True religion is acting like God in justice and compassion with and for others rather over and against them.

Last week I argued that God is a humble God because he acts not against other but for others and with others. The notion of being God’s chosen, of being the firstfruits, presents us with a fourth type of power: God acts through others. God demonstrates his humility by first investing all humanity with authority and responsibility by making us in his image. He then invests Israel with the responsibility of being a priestly nation through whom he might bless the nations. He then invests the church with the responsibility of being the firstfruits. We are thus called to be set apart from the world in that we act with the same love and compassion that God has towards the world. James calls us not only to listen to the word of God, but to do it. And that means to look after orphans and widows, to seek justice for the poor and the oppressed, to welcome the stranger, and to proclaim in word and deed that Jesus is lord and savior of all people. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


O God, author and giver of all good things,
plant in our hearts the love of your name;
increase in us true religion;
nourish us with all goodness;
and bring forth in us the fruit of good works;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever. Amen.

August 26, 2018 The Humble God: The Life of God, or Real Food
(John 6:55-69) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I would like to do a little experiment with you. So when I am standing here, you can see me, right? And you can hear me, right? Would you say I am with you? How about if I move here? Can you hear me? Am I with you? But what if I move [goes behind a wall]… here. Can you see me? Can you hear me? Yes. Am I with you?

When someone is with us we can usually see them and here them, can’t we? But someone can be with you, at least in some way, even when you can’t see them. Because you could hear my words, I was still with you in a way. Have you ever talked to anyone on the phone? Maybe a grandparent, or an aunt or an uncle? Maybe they were far away, but by talking with them on the phone they were sort of with you for a while weren’t they.

In the gospel of John Jesus teaches that if we believe in him and if we trust in him, he will remain in us and we will remain in him. That means he will be with us always. But we can’t see Jesus, can we? And we can’t even hear Jesus by talking to him over the phone. But there are other ways Jesus remains with us. He gave us his word, the Bible, that we can read. So when we read the Bible we can hear Jesus. We can pray to Jesus and when we pray we can speak to him and we can listen to him in silence as well. And Jesus also promised to send his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, to us. So if we believe and trust in Jesus I want you to remember that Jesus remains with us by his Word, through prayer and by his Holy Spirit. [end children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks ago I talked about how we were created to be like God. In Christ, therefore, we are being remade in his image to become more and more like God. Last week I argued that our first step towards becoming like God, however, was to recognize that we are not God. We were made to be like God in some ways, but we were not made to be God. To be like God, we, his creatures must submit ourselves to him, honor him, obey him, and worship him. We must fear him.

Our first step to becoming more like God is a step of humility. Many of you know that during my sabbatical I read and wrote about humility. And so, even if you didn’t realize it, this is now my third sermon in series about humility. Last week we examined an important aspect of humility. Humility involves a submission to something or someone. It often involves a submission to someone greater than oneself. A student demonstrates humility by following the instructions of her teacher. Humility can also come in the form of a submission to an ideal or a cause. The President of the United States should act out of humility after swearing to uphold and protect the constitution of the United States of American. The President thus places himself, or one day herself, under the ideals and the regulations of the constitution. We demonstrate humility through our fear of God. We submit ourselves to the person of God and to the ways of God.

Now it is fitting for our first step in becoming more like God to be a step of humility because our God is a humble God. That may sound kind of odd because there are many acclamations in scripture that praise God for his majesty, his might, his great wisdom, his glory. Psalm 8, for example, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. … When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, … What is humankind that you are mindful of them?” Our temptation is that we want to emulate God and become like God in his power and glory. We want that for ourselves. But what if this glorious and mighty God were also a humble God? What if this God also demonstrated a kind of submissiveness?

In our gospel text this morning in verse 55. Jesus says, “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” A little later in verse 63 he says, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.” Later in the book Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and even later he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life” (11:25; 14:6).

So who is the life? Jesus says he lives because of the Father, but that the Spirit gives life, and that he himself is the life. How can this be? How can Jesus be the source of life, yet live because of the Father? What lies behind Jesus’ words is what we call the Trinity. Jesus is the life because as he himself says, he abides in the Father and he and the Father are one. The Spirit gives life because the Spirit is the sent by the Father just as the Father sends the Son. Paul talks about the Spirit in various ways, sometimes within the same sentence. He can call the Spirit the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, or just the Spirit. In some ways Father, Son (or Jesus or Christ), and Spirit are interchangeable. They are all God. They are all in some ways One. But yet the very fact that Jesus refers to the Father and the Spirit means that they are in some ways unique. If there were no difference the Father couldn’t send the Son, nor the Son send the Spirit.

From all this we can say that the source of all being is not just one, but one in three, or three in one. The community of the Trinity is at the source of all being. Mutual give and take is at the source of all being. God is a humble God because in the life of the Trinity there is mutual submission. In our text we see that Jesus is submissive to the Father for he is sent by the Father. But there are other places in scripture where we see even the Father subordinating himself to the Son. Throughout the New Testament Jesus is known as “Lord.” “Jesus is Lord,” was the first Christian confession of faith. In Roman ears this meant that Jesus was Lord and not Caesar, but in Jewish ears it mean something different. Jews never say the name of God, Yahweh, but instead call God, Adonai, which means Lord. When Christians call Jesus Lord, they are calling him Yahweh. Commenting on one of these passages biblical scholar Reinhard Feldmeier says that God hands over the name he has held throughout Israel’s history and takes the name Father for himself.[1]

In Philippians 2:6 (pg. 873) we see perhaps the greatest example of this mutual give and take and mutual submission. Jesus although “in nature God” “made himself nothing,” was “made in human likeness,” and remained “obedient even unto death.” “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name.” Jesus submitted himself in obedience to the Father, so the Father gives him his own place and his own name so that “every tongue” may “acknowledge Jesus Christ is Lord,” or Yahweh, or God. But Jesus does this “to the glory of the Father.” He gives back the glory he receives. There is mutual submission, mutual give and take, mutual sharing between the Father and the Son

In our passage Jesus is saying that he is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven because he participates in and is part of the source of life that is Father. But earlier in the passage in verse 40 Jesus says, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.”  Jesus looks to the Father as the source of life. The Father points us to Jesus as the source of life.

Jesus takes up this image of the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness because of the symbolic meaning of the manna. Yes, food is our source of life in a physical sense. But the Israelites learned by eating the bread from heaven, the manna which was sent by God every day, to trust in God. The source of true life is trust in God. Here Jesus is saying that the true bread from heaven, the true source of life, real food, is trusting in him for he and the Father are one.

But there is more, to eat the bread of heaven, to trust in Jesus is to be invited into a relationship that is like the relationships in the Trinity. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them,” says Jesus.  We live as we exist in this loving and humble relationship with Jesus, just as Jesus lives in a loving and humble relationship within the Trinity. Now of course in this relationship we submit ourselves to Jesus, but Jesus, in a sense, also serves us. He is the one who already submitted himself to death for us, but he continues to serve us as our intercessor before the Father and by promising to abide in us if we abide in him.

And this brings us to a second aspect of humility: how one uses power. Feldmeier argues that there are two kinds of power. “There is the power of the devil, which violently subjects the other person to one’s own will, and there is the power of the rule of God, which understands existence as coexistence and hence acts not against the other but for him and with him.”[2]

I might separate this into three kinds of power – power against, power for, and power with.  And so we see Jesus using power for us and with us in this passage. In verse 51 Jesus says “This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.” Jesus goes to the cross, but also rises from the dead for the life of the world. He uses his power to defeat death for us. But Jesus didn’t do this just for us. He did this so that he could be with us, and he did this first by taking on our flesh and blood.

If we want to know and experience what it is to abide in Jesus, I think we need to move from an understanding of how God uses power for us to and an understanding that God also uses power with us. Some may think that God mainly uses power against us. Many view God as a mainly judgmental. Our job is to not mess up, to not sin, and to obey all kinds of rules to keep God from getting angry with us. I hope that we all recognize that God’s main stance toward us is one of love and grace and mercy. He is a God who is for us.

And so maybe our prayers are not so much about God’s power against us, but God’s power for us. We turn to God in prayer mainly in terms of intercession. We ask God for his blessings not only for our benefit, but also for the benefit of others.  In turn, if we ask God to do things for us, we feel we have to pledge ourselves to do things for God. We pledge ourselves to obey him. We seek to do his will. We dedicate ourselves to using our gifts and talents in service to God’s kingdom.

That is all well and good, but Jesus says that if we eat the bread of life we will be in him and he in us. How then do we move from knowing that God is for us, to embracing God with us? In my children’s sermon I mentioned God’s word and prayer. Let’s start with prayer.

At the beginning of our service I have been asking you to review your day or your week to notice the places God has blessed you or others and then to give thanks. But the more we notice and give thanks for what God has done for us and others, the more we will notice that God is not just doing things for us, he is present with us. Move then from noticing what God has done to noting how God has been present. Then the more we take note of his presence with us, the more we will begin to realize that he not only wants us to do things for him and for the Kingdom, but with him. Jesus is in us not just to comfort us and make us feel good, but so that we can fully participate in the life of God and in the mission of God. God and Jesus are not satisfied with us doing things for them, they want us to do things and live with them. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”

But that is not an easy calling. It means that we must, as Jesus says, “eat his flesh and drink his blood.” It means we must give up trying to be our own source of life, our own source of power, our own source of morality. It means we must put our trust solely and fully in him. It means we must fear him. And so we say with many of his disciples in verse 60, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Abiding in Jesus means constantly confronting that part of us that finds this difficult and wants to walk away. We all want and desire to be independent. We all want and desire to determine our lives and our destinies for ourselves. And so in our worship service almost every week, we take time to examine our lives and to admit that there are times and places where we have exerted our own will over against the will of God. We must ask: where have we used our power not for or with others, but violently, through hurtful words or actions, over against others? Where have we acted selfishly? Where have we sought to keep a corner of our lives independent from God? Has it been in how we spend or save our money? Has it been in how we have sought or used power in our relationships with our colleagues? Has it been in how you have treated a friend, or your children, or your parents?

Through our prayer of confession, by confessing our sins and seeking God’s mercy, we come to recognize and confess what Jesus says in verse 63, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you – they are full of the Spirit and life.”  The flesh is that part of us and the world that is opposed to the Kingdom of God and God’s ways. It is that independent streak in us. But when we confess this we confess that Jesus, the Spirit, the Father, that the Triune God, is the only true source of life and that life comes only through the grace of God. “This is why I told you,” Jesus says in verse 65, “that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” Through our confession of sin, we throw ourselves completely on the mercy and grace of God and so we eat the flesh of Jesus for we trust in him for forgiveness and true life.

It is then, however, that we can live our lives not just for God and his kingdom, but with God. In verse 66 we read, “From this time many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer followed him. ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We began this service with a silent prayer of gratitude so that we could become more aware of how God is present with us. We then had a silent prayer of confession so that we could admit our utter need for God’s grace. We then turned to God’s word. Let us now take a few moments of silent prayer and ask, “What has Jesus said to me this morning?” He may have said something in the texts of scripture. It may have been in the sermon. It may have been in the prayers, or the songs we sang or the blessing we have received. How has Jesus been with you through his word this morning?


O blessed Trinity,

in whom we know the maker of all things seen and unseen,

the Savior of all both near and far:

By your Spirit enable us so to worship your divine majesty

that with all the company of heaven

we may magnify your glorious name, saying,

Holy, holy, holy. Glory to you, O Lord Most High. Amen.

[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 77–79.

[2] Feldmeier, 8.

August 19, 2018 The Beginning of Wisdom
(Proverbs 9:1-12; Psalm 34:9–14) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] You all know I have been away for a while. Well, while I was on sabbatical I didn’t’ preach once. I didn’t give one children’s sermon for four months, which means I am a little out of practice. So I was wondering if someone else might do the children’s sermon for me this morning. Actually I thought it would be a good idea to kind of reverse things and have the children give the children’s sermon. See? Then it could be a children’s sermon! How about that? Would you all like to give the children’s sermon? No? Why not? How about one of the older children? Or a teenager? Why not? …

Well, aside from the fact that no one else is prepared, I am the pastor and I am the one at least at Hessel Park Church who is expected to give the children’s sermon. I am the pastor and you are not. And I need to know that and b prepared to give a children’s sermon on Sunday. But this morning I am still going to get some help from some children. I have here a poster that Isaak and Mariclare made for Sunday School. It says “God is …” and then all these symbols and words of what God is: Alpha and Omega, or we might say he is the A to Z, he is the Beginning and the End. He is light, and the King, The way, the truth and the life. The Creator. He is Eternal and immortal. He is wise and all knowing. He is all these things.

Now last week we talked about how we were made to be like God. But can we be like all these things? No. We can be loving, but not Love itself. We can be wise, but not all knowing. We have eternal life in Jesus, but there was a time when we were not, so we are not Eternal. And we are certainly not the creator. So there are many ways we can be like God, but then there are also many ways in which we cannot.

You see, while we were created to be like God, the first thing we really need to know is that God is God, and we are not God. The Bible says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (9:10). Now we think of fear only in the sense of being afraid of something, but in the Bible, fear can also mean to have respect for something, and even to worship something. So the beginning of wisdom, the beginning of becoming like God is not to be afraid of God, but to respect, honor and worship God. And we know this because we don’t need to be afraid of God for he is Love. He is the Creator. He is Compassionate, forgiving and just. He is our shepherd. To fear God is to know that God is God and we are not. [End of children’s sermon]

* * * * * * * * * *

Many of you know that my parents are what some people call “avid birders.” They are serious birdwatchers. Their goal has been to see 5,000 different species of birds. They have travelled all over the world, from Central and South America, to China, Indonesia, India, and Australia, from Madagascar and South Africa, to Alaska and Newfoundland. They are currently in Brazil floating down the Amazon River. And just the other day they surpassed their goal of 5,000 species.

They chose 5,000 because it was about half of the 10,000 or so known species of birds in the world. It is also a very respectable number to see even among serious birdwatchers. They had to work pretty hard for many years to see this many species. But while I was looking up these facts the other night, I found an article that said that scientists are now rethinking how they divide up species. Under the old way they estimate that there are around 10,000 species of birds in the world. Under the new way, they estimate that there could be over 18,000 and maybe even 20,000 species.

While this may come as really disappointing news to my parents, it probably means that they have actually seen a couple thousands more species than they thought. To me it demonstrates something fascinating about the world we live in. While humans may be amassing more and more information and knowledge about the world, the more we learn about the world, the more we learn that there is even yet more to learn. As scientists learn more about birds, they are learning that the old ways they categorized them didn’t fit with how different populations of birds have evolved and thus formed different species. And I am sure that this is true of every field that is represented in this room, or else you all would be out of a job. The more we learn, the more we find out that there is more to learn.

For some, our growing knowledge of the universe becomes a source of pride and hubris. We tend to put our faith in progress and development and “advancement.” We think we will be able to command more and more of the universe as we come to know more and more about it. We therefore think we will be able to solve all our problems through our knowledge of the world. But the truth is that the more we learn, the more we realize that there so much we do not know. This is a cause not for hubris, but for humility. The more we learn about the universe, the more we ought to be awed by its vast complexity and diversity, but probably also, in some ways, its simplicity. All life that we know of, for example, is carbon based. This, to me, is awe inspiring and thus humbling.

In our text this morning we read that ““The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” For far too long the church has misinterpreted the meaning of fear throughout the Bible. We have taught people that our first and foremost position before God must be one of fear. We must be afraid of God and fear his punishment. And because of this many people have left the church or thought that Christians believe in a sadistic God.

In looking up the etymology of the English word fear, I found that fear is almost always associated with a purely negative feelings of terror. There are some hints that the English word occasionally means to have a sense of awe and respect, but for the most part we associate fear only with potential harm.

But as Christians we should understand “fear” in terms of how the biblical authors used the word. How did they define or re-define fear?  So if we look at this verse we just quoted, we can see that it follows a typical poetic form of Hebrew poetry called parallelism. In this you have two lines that go together and play upon each other. The meaning of each line is shaped by the other. Sometimes the second line repeats the first but this expands and interprets the meaning, and sometimes it says the opposite, which is also expands and interprets the meaning. So in our case the second line repeats and expands the meaning of the first. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” It is obvious that wisdom and understanding are synonyms. They are in parallel in the two lines of the verses. But so are “the fear of the Lord” and “knowledge of the Holy One.” The point of this poetic structure is to encourage us to associate “the fear of the Lord” with “knowledge of the Holy One.” They somehow fit together. Fear is thus not just about being afraid of God. It is about coming to know more about God.

If we turn to our Psalm we see that the fear of the Lord has little to do with being afraid. “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. Come, my children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord. Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:8-14)

Those who fear the Lord are those who are secure in God’s care and have no need of fear. God provides for them. They have tasted and seen that God is good and so they seek to follow God. They turn from evil and do good. They seek peace and pursue it. The fear of the Lord not only has to do not only with getting to know more about God, that he is good, but also getting to know how to be like God.

If we turn to Psalm 25 we can see another example of the “fear of God” being used in the same way. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” V. 4: “Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.”  The Psalmist is not afraid of God but has great trust and hope in God and so desires knowledge of God so he can be like God.

And what does he know of God? V. 8: “Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in his ways. He guides the humble in what is right and teaches them his way. All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant.”  The Psalmist knows he is a sinner, but he is not afraid for he knows God instructs sinners in his ways. He knows that God is good and upright and loving.

So what about the fear of the Lord? V. 12: “Who, then, is the man that fears the Lord? He will instruct him in the way chosen for him.” Here again we see a connection between the fear of the Lord and gaining knowledge of God and his ways. V. 13: “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”

We see throughout this psalm a connection between fearing God, having knowledge of God, learning and following his ways, and then the person prospering, or being redeemed from trouble, or forgiven, and so on. Verse 14 sort of sums all this up: “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.”  The language in verse 13 about land and prosperity is covenantal language. : “[The one who fears the Lord] will spend his days in prosperity and his descendants will inherit the land. God promised Israel the land in his covenant with Abraham. So to fear the Lord is to be welcomed into a covenantal relationship with God that is defined by love and care and grace on God’s part, and devotion and trust and worship on ours. The Psalmist begins the psalm with worship, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God.” To fear the Lord, according to the psalmist, is to trust in, revere, and worship God. To fear the Lord is not to be afraid, but to enter into a relationship of faith and faithfulness with God.

That being said, the Greek and Hebrew words for fear can also mean what we usually mean by fear – to be afraid of harm. One of the most common commands God gives to those he directly encounters or who he encounters through his angels is, “Do not be afraid.” In Genesis 15 God says to Abraham, “Do not be afraid. I am your shield, your very great reward.” In Daniel 10, Daniel sees a messenger of God, or maybe the Son of Man, and he is terrified. But the man says to him, “Do not be afraid.” When the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah and then to Mary in Luke 1, he says to them, “Do not be afraid.” When the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples in Matthew 28, he says, “Do not be afraid.” In the book of Revelation when John sees the Son of Man sitting on his throne in all his glory, he falls down as if dead, but the Son of Man places his hand on John and says, “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last” (1:17)

When we come face to face with God, we cannot help but be afraid. Fear in this instance is not necessarily fear that this being before us might personally cause us harm or attack us. It is the fear of harm because of the unknown. It is fear that arises from an encounter with something so other than us that we can hardly fathom the difference. Those who encounter God or Jesus or even just an angel of God encounter something so much greater and more powerful than they that they are awestruck and dumbfounded. This fear is the recognition that God is God, and we are not. It is a recognition that the difference in being between God and us is infinite. We can’t help but feel small, insignificant, unworthy and also sinful in the presence of the God who is truly and fully righteous and holy. But when we look at actual encounters with God in the scriptures, God immediately responds to this warranted fear with love and compassion. “Do not be afraid,” he says, inviting us into a covenantal relationship of trust.

Thus we return to the connection between the knowledge of God and the fear of God. The more we come to know God, the more awestruck we will be. The more we come to know of his power and majesty, the more we will respect him. The more we come to know of his justice and his compassion, the more we will honor him and want to follow in his ways. The more we know of his mercy and love, the more we will worship him. The more we fear him, the more we live in awe of him, the more we will trust in him.

So let us close with a little exercise to help us think about God and that God is God and we are not. I look around the room and I see people who are extremely knowledgeable in one field or another – Physics, Mathematics, Ethics, and so on. I see others who have amazing talents and skills – Pianists, Physical therapists, computer experts, a lawyer. Each of you has talents or abilities or knowledge that the person sitting next to you knows little or nothing about. Now think of some colleague you have and about all the things they know about your filed that you don’t know. The point is that whatever we do as humans, whatever we know, we can only master a certain number of things. Even within our field of expertise, we are all limited in our knowledge and skill. We are so finite.

Now think back to the children’s sermon. Just one thing on that poster about God was that he was the creator. Think of all that entails. It entails not only that God knows all the stuff that each of knows, but all the stuff that we realize we don’t know about our field or our practice, and all the stuff that we don’t even know that we don’t know yet. It also means not only that he knows it, but that he designed it. He made it. All. And that is only one aspect of God. We can’t even begin to scratch the surface of the knowledge of God.

The God we worship, my friends, is a God to be in awe of. He is a God to fear. But if we fear him, this God welcomes us into a relationship of love and trust with him so that we can become more and more like him. He invites us into a relationship with him so that we can come to live more in line with the way his is and the way he made the world. And that, my friends, is the definition of wisdom. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, teach us to fear you, so that we may worship you. Teach us to worship you, so that we may come to know you more and more. Teach us to know you, so that we may be like you. Shape us more and more in your image so that we may be wise, live in your ways, and be salt and light in this world. Amen.


August 12, 2018 A Genuine Imitation
(Ephesians 4:17-5:2) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] So I wonder how many of you can play the piano? Adults and teens too, how many of you can play the piano? Even I can play the piano, maybe just the melody line, but that is at least something. But how many of you can play this [holds up a sheet of music]? That looks pretty difficult, doesn’t it? I know I couldn’t play that but I know several of you are much better at playing the piano than me. But maybe you are not accomplished enough to play this. But even if you can’t play all of this, maybe you can play this … [pianist plays the melody]. Or maybe even this … [adds harmony or bass?].  So even if you can’t play this [indicates sheet music and pianist plays the full score], you could still play a version of this piece of music.

This morning in our epistle reading Paul urges the church in Ephesus, which we call Ephesians, he says, “Be imitators of God.”  “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). That seems like a hard thing for us to do? Who of us can really imitate God? Can you be as strong and powerful as God? Can you be as loving as Jesus? Could you sacrifice your life like Jesus did on the cross for us? Paul says earlier in his letter that we are being made new in Christ in order “to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24). Who of us can be perfect and live a life of true righteousness and holiness? Who of us is without sin like Jesus?

Well, maybe you can think of it as being a bit like playing the piano. Living without sin, in true righteousness and holiness, fully imitating God is something like this … [pianist plays full score]. We may not be able to do that or do that perfectly. But maybe we have begun to learn to live like Jesus. Maybe we have begun to be like God. Paul urges the Ephesians not to be angry with each other or fight with each other, but to forgive each other. He tells them not to steal or to lie. Rather he says to be show compassion to each other and to love one another. Now we all know how to be kind and loving, so we can make a start. We can be like this … [pianist plays the melody]. And with the help of the Holy Spirit and by working together as a church, we can all make progress and begin to be more like this … [add harmony / bass]. Paul says if we live together as a church, filled with the Holy Spirit, we will grow and build each other up in love until we become more and more like this [pianist plays full score]. [end children’s sermon]

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Have you ever seen a commercial on TV like this? You see a couple sitting at a table in a romantic restaurant. “Imagine a moment of magic.”[1] The woman opens up a small box and something inside sparkles. “Imagine a moment of pride.” The woman nonchalantly holds her hand so her ring just somehow can’t be missed. Her friends whisper in the background, “How can she afford a ring like that?” “Well stop imagining. Enjoy the magic and the pride when you wear the fabulous 5 karat cubic zirconium Princessa Evening Ring. It can be yours for only $9.95. But wait, that’s not all …” How many of you have seen a commercial like this and actually wanted a genuine, cubic zirconium ring?

Cubic zirconia is a synthetic material that is colorless and very durable that is used as an imitation diamond. But to those who care, no matter how beautiful, and brilliant cubic zirconia is, it is just not a diamond. It is a fake, an imposter, an imitation. Philosopher Charles Taylor argues that we live in the age of authenticity. Since we have broken down traditional societies in which children basically grew up into the same roles and jobs as their parents, we have to create our own identities. We have therefore come to prize authenticity. We all must find our true selves, or rather, develop, construct and create our true selves. And it just doesn’t seem to be right if the selves we create are mere imitations of someone else. No one wants to be called a fake or an imposter. The two moral maxims our society seems to be one, that we all must be true to ourselves, and two, we must therefore be tolerant of others.

As a society we value individuality and originality. But what we usually settle for is a cheap imitation that only purports to be an original. We can’t escape this. No one is able to be truly and fully original. We all operate out of a culture we inherit, with a language or languages that shape how we think. And if you look closely at anyone who is trying to be “original” by getting tattoos or piercings or through the clothes they wear, there are numerous other people being “original” in the same way. Perhaps to be truly original or unique we could embrace our dependence on others. The truth is that our identities are a mix of what we receive from others and our own individuality. The way to be truly unique is to become genuine imitations.

You see, we should not disparage imitation because we were made for imitation. God made humans “in the image of God.” Paul’s ethical advice centers on his encouragement for us to imitate God. The only way for us to be real humans is to be genuine imitations of God. Our problem, however, is that we attempt to be fake imitations. Adam and Eve were fake imitations of God. Although they were made in the image of God, although they were made to be like God, their sin was to seek their own way to be like God. By eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they sought the power to determine what is right and what is wrong for themselves. They sought to be gods, and thus false imitations of God. A false imitation denies dependence on the original and seeks to replace the original and be seen as something completely different. A genuine imitation, however, honestly admits dependence upon the original and openly seeks to follow the original. We were made to be genuine imitations of God.

But as I mentioned in the children’s sermon, that almost seems like an impossible task. Who can live in true and untainted righteousness and holiness? Won’t all our efforts be tinged with our attempts to forge our own way? How do we avoid the temptation of Adam and Eve and slip from imitating God to trying to be gods ourselves?

Humility and pride determine the difference between genuine imitation and false imitation. In thinking, reading and writing about humility over the past few months, I came across numerous authors who make the claim that pride is the root of all evil. Pride moved Adam and Eve to seek to become gods. They lacked the humility to remain dependent on God and to be happy imitating God. It takes humility to depend upon another. It takes humility to submit oneself to following in the way of another. Pride seeks independence and its own way. Humility embraces dependence and obedience.

How then are we to become genuine imitations of God? How are we to “put on the new self,” as Paul says, “created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24).  Well, I think an analogy with music can help us here. Living into our true selves is like learning how to play the piece of music God created for each of us to be. Yes, we all are unique. We are all individuals, but we share a common tradition. We follow common laws and conventions and so on. And in Christ we are all joined into one body through baptism. We all play, and live and work together in and through the church. Together we are an orchestra called to play a particular symphony.

At the beginning of the chapter Paul urges us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (4:1-2). He then goes off on what seems to be a theological tangent, “There is one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Paul basically riffs on the Trinity, that God is three in one – one Spirit, one Lord (who is Jesus), one God and Father. At its best, the church displays the same unity, the same harmony, as we find in our triune God.

We will talk more about humility and the Trinity in the next weeks, but theology, how we understand and talk about God and about our relationship with him, is fundamentally important. Theology matters. Think of theology as sort of like the music staff, the treble clef and the bass clef. Theology sort of sets the structure for our life with God. Theology arises out of our shared discussions on the Bible and what we know of God from the creation and from our experience of the Holy Spirit. Theology sets the boundaries and provides a common language for our life together in pursuit of becoming genuine images of God. If our goal, our purpose, our reason for being created and recreated is to be like God, we need theology. We need to know what God is like.

So we have theology, the music staff, but we also have the actual notes. We can think of the notes as the various virtues we are to exhibit in our lives. When the actions and thoughts that we have align with the virtues, then we are living our lives in tune with God’s plan for us. Our actions are the notes we play. When we live according to the virtues, when we speak truthfully, share with those in need, live at peace with others, when we are kind and filled with compassion, then our lives sound in harmony. But when we follow the vices, when we let anger overtake us, when we are bitter, when we lie about or slander others, our lives sound disharmonious. Something just isn’t right. It sounds ugly and possibly offensive. But the virtues guide us to play the right notes.

As members of Christ, we are automatically members of his body, the church. We are therefore not called to be soloists, but to be members in an orchestra. We are each called to play our own part with our own instrument. Each of us is unique yet part of the whole. Earlier in the chapter Paul says, “It was [Christ himself] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (4:11-2). This morning we ordained 2 new elders and a deacon. While we all play a particular instrument, maybe we have a trumpet section, and a violin section. The elders and deacons are then like the lead players of each section. They are called to lead and encourage the whole section to play the best they can play, to “equip them for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

So we have the musical staff, the different instruments and sections all playing different notes but harmoniously together, but only if they all follow the same rhythm. Later in the letter Paul says, “be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit” (5:18-19). The spiritual disciplines and practices of the church set the rhythm of the church and the Christian life. We meet every week for corporate worship. Maybe we meet every other week in a small group. We each have our own times to “practice,” maybe daily or weekly. We pray, read and meditate on scripture, and give of our time and money to support the church and those who are in need. We take one day a week off from work to rest and observe the Sabbath. The rhythms of the spiritual disciplines open us up to the movements of the Holy Spirit and keep us in time with the Spirit of God and Jesus, the director of the orchestra.

Sisters and brothers, let us together “Be imitators of God … as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Jesus showed us the love of God through his life and through his death on the cross, but he also showed us the humility of God – the God who loved us so much he was willing to humble himself and become incarnate so that he could lead us into a life of obedience and faithfulness by dying on a cross for us. So let us seek to follow Christ in love and humility so that we may become genuine imitations of God.

Almighty God, in Christ you came to us in the flesh to teach us, to heal us, to lead us into a life of obedience and to overcome death and sin through his death and resurrection. Fill us with your Spirit that we may put off our old selves and put on our news selves, created to be like you in love and humility. Amen.

[1] See

April 1, 2018 The Shroud of the Nations
(Isaiah 25:6-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] This morning I have something for you. I have some heart stickers for you. Know when you see a heart, what does it mean to you? It means love. So if someone gave you a heart sticker, maybe that would mean that they loved you, right? And you could take that sticker and put in on your shirt. Then every time you saw it you would remember that someone who loves you.

Two weeks ago Isaak was baptized. Here at Hessel Park we baptize by putting water from here onto someone’s head.  Now baptism is sort of like a heart sticker. Baptism is a sign, a symbol, that God loves us. But it reminds us that God loves us in very special ways. Baptism reminds us that God adopts us as his children. Baptism reminds us that God washes away our sins. He forgives us. And baptism reminds us that God gives us the Holy Spirit so that we can love him, trust in him and obey him better. In all these ways baptism reminds us that God loves us.  

So I am going to give you each a page of heart stickers. You can then give a sticker to anyone you want so they can look at the sticker and remember that you love them. And so when you come to church, remember to look at the baptismal font and remember that God loves each and every one of us. [End]

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The Lord said through the Prophet Isaiah, “Forget the former things; Do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). Each Sunday during Lent I have begun our service reciting this verse from Isaiah and pouring water into the baptismal font. I have done this to remind us each week of our baptism. I have done this to remind us that our way out of exile and the wilderness is found in Christ. For in baptism we are united with Jesus Christ and so adopted as God’s children, forgiven of our sin, and anointed with the Holy Spirit. In Christ we die with him so we too will be raised with him. God’s love for us in Christ brings us out of exile.

Let’s take a moment and name some of the ways we find ourselves in exile and in the wilderness. When you turn on the news, or open the paper, or look at your facebook feed, what are some of the ways you see people in the world experiencing exile and the wilderness? Refugees, police shootings, mass shootings in schools, the opioid crisis, immigration issues, DACA, talks between the U.S. and North Korea. The list goes on and on. We live in a broken, sinful world. A world crying out for God. Remember all these things and they will become our prayer of God’s people later in the service.

But let’s also think of some of the ways we as individuals experience the wilderness and exile? How are we broken? Where do we see the need for God in our lives? Sickness and disease, mental illness, anxiety, depression, need for employment, struggles with personal sin, broken relationships. We all as individuals also are crying out for God.

Over the season of Lent we have seen how God has brought his people out of exile and through the wilderness to himself. We have seen this through the stories of Abraham and Sarah, the People of Israel at Mount Sinai, and the People of Israel in wandering in the wilderness. We have seen how God has acted in the history of the people of Israel to redeem them. Last week we saw how the story of Israel comes to its fulfillment in the story of Jesus. Jesus acts as the faithful Israelite and fulfills the covenant on behalf of Israel.

In all of this we have found comfort and hope because we have seen the same God acting to bring his people back into relationship with him. Ultimately we see God bringing us to him by coming to us himself in Jesus. In Jesus God came to live with us, teach us, walk with us, heal us, and ultimately to die for us in order to forgive our sins and raise us with Christ into new life. In his book, Power, Service, Humility, New Testament scholar Reinhard Feldmeir argues that “[T]he superior power [of the pagan gods] is regarded as the decisive difference between the divine and the human.”[1] On the other hand, while the God of Israel is known for his great and awesome power, what makes the God of Israel distinct is that he uses his power for the sake of others, and particularly for the benefit of the weak and oppressed. The God of Israel is He who brings low the lofty and raises up the humble. In the biblical story, he uses his power first to create the conditions for life and then to oppose those forces that bring injustice and death and to save those oppressed by the forces of evil and death. God’s power is not a power for the sake of power, but a power that creates and saves.

Feldmeir finds this same dynamic at work in the New Testament in the ministry of Jesus.[2] In Greek the normal word for “miracle” is thaumata.  A miracle in this sense is an act that breaks the laws of nature and causes “admiration of the wonder worker.” Jesus repeatedly shies away from the crowds when they begin to admire him too much for being a wonder worker. Thus, his acts of healing and other demonstrations of power are not called thaumata, works of wonder, but dunameis, acts of power. Jesus’ powerful acts point to the power of God and they demonstrate that in Jesus the reign of God, the Kingdom of God has come. His acts of healing and over nature are acts that bring life to those oppressed by disease and social stigma, and faith to those who doubt. They are acts that bring people out of exile and into the fullness of life. They are Kingdom acts of new creation.

This morning we celebrate the ultimate of these acts of power, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Last week we saw that Jesus acted for Israel, God’s people, in order to act on behalf of all humanity. The prophet Isaiah looks forward to Jesus’ resurrection when he says, “On this mountain [the Lord Almighty] will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth” (Isaiah 25:7-8). God overcame death and sin in the person of Jesus so that the resurrection of the One could be a down payment, a guarantee that God will one day overcome the death and sin of all. The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates God’s power to save and to recreate.

In a recent article in The Christian Century, husband and wife, John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, examine the different understandings of Jesus’ resurrection held by the Western Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.[3] If you look at the handout in your bulletins you will see two depictions of the Resurrection. The one on the left represents a typical Western portrayal of the resurrection.[4] Jesus is shown rising from the grave by himself while the guards lay sleeping around the grave.

The picture on the right represents a typical Eastern Orthodox depiction of the resurrection.[5] Here we see Jesus rising up out of the land of the dead, standing over the defeated figure of death. The cross demonstrates the means of Jesus’ victory. You can also see broken chains and the keys of the gates of hades as well. But the Crossans point out that in this depiction Jesus is not alone. He pulls Adam and Eve, the two on the left, out of their graves. On the right you see that Israel is present too in the figures of David and Solomon.

The Crossans argue that the West celebrates an individual resurrection, while the East celebrates a universal resurrection. They argue that the Eastern tradition is more biblical because there is no actual depiction of the event of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament. It happens off stage, so to speak. They argue that the rest of the New Testament teaches a universal resurrection. The point of the resurrection is not the actual fact of Jesus’ resurrection. That’s rather immaterial. Rather, they argue the resurrection of Jesus is a “reality creating metaphor” that has significance for all of humanity. Jesus’ resurrection signifies the metaphorical resurrection of Israel, Adam and Eve, and all their descendants. The resurrection is a symbol, a story, which vindicates the kind of life Jesus lived, a life of love and sacrifice that eschewed violence. The resurrection is thus a “reality creating metaphor” because it leads all of humanity out of our hatred and violence and into more ethical modes of human interaction.

While I don’t agree with the Crossans’ conclusions, I do believe they bring up important differences between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity. But these differences call us to embrace the truths found in each tradition. Rather than seeing these as competing traditions, we should see them as traditions that correct and enhance one another.

I agree with the Crossans that Western Christianity has become too individualized. We typically think about resurrection, or our baptism, or any aspect of Christianity in terms of my own personal relationship with God and Jesus. But then we struggle to figure out how this then applies to our life in the world, our work, our relationship with others, to politics, economics, and to society in general.

But if we remember that Jesus acted for Israel on behalf of all humanity, then we see the truth depicted in the Eastern iconography. Christ came to redeem all humanity. His death and resurrection were sufficient to remove the shroud of death that covers all the nations. Christ’s resurrection does vindicate the life and ministry of Jesus. It demonstrates that the life of love and service Christ lived, that his refusal to resort to violence, that his trust in God are the true ways of life. Humans cannot overcome sin and death and violence and hatred by resorting to violence and hatred. They can only be overcome through love and faith in the God of love and the God of life. The God who makes a way in the desert and provides streams in the wilderness. What the Eastern Iconography reminds us is that God resurrected Jesus for the sake of all humanity, but not only for humanity, but also for the world itself. We hope not only for our resurrection as humans, but also for the renewal, the resurrection of the earth.

By starting with the universal we can then move, as God does, to the communal. God calls to himself a people, not mere individuals, to live out of the love and faith of Jesus and into the new life he has promised. The church is that community that has been joined to Christ through faith and baptism to live and speak in such a way to point to Christ and his ways. It is a community that demonstrates a faith that God is the God of creation who acts in the world to overcome evil, sin and death to save humanity. It is a community that knows and believes that Christ came to defeat sin and death and evil for all humanity. It is a community that then announces the good news that Jesus is risen, and thus that Jesus is Lord. We then invite others to join us in this way of faith and life.

We therefore move from the universal, to the communal, to the individual. Attempting to figure out how to apply our faith to the world moves in the wrong direction for it begins with the individual. Rather, we must start with God’s kingdom and figure out how to conform our lives to the world God is making. Our calling is to seek to conform our lives to Christ so that we can be witnesses of the Kingdom, proclaiming in our words and deed the good news that is for all humanity.

The thing is that the good news we proclaim is good news precisely because it actually happened. The resurrection of Jesus vindicates the life and ministry of Jesus only if he actually rose from the dead. The Crossans argue that the Western depiction of the resurrection is not biblical because the Bible doesn’t record anyone actually witnessing the resurrection. The Crossans ignore numerous statements by Peter and Paul that attest to the actual, physical resurrection of Jesus. “We are witnesses,” Peter proclaims in Acts 10:39. Moreover, there are several biblical scenes in which Jesus’ followers encounter a real, bodily, physical Jesus who eats and drinks with them. But this real, physical Jesus is not bound to our physicality. He appears and disappears at will. Walls and doors and tombs present no obstacle to him. In other words, Jesus rose from the dead in the darkness of the tomb, but then probably left the tomb. The stone was moved away from the tomb not to let Jesus out, but to let the women and the disciples in. No one, not even the guards, witnessed the resurrection of Jesus.

The Eastern depiction of the resurrection is a metaphorical depiction because it depicts not the event of the resurrection, but the universal meaning of the resurrection. But the Western depiction of the resurrection is also metaphorical. Jesus rises up out of a coffin. He is not walking out of the tomb. It too points to the meaning of the resurrection: Jesus himself, physically, bodily rose from the dead. It demonstrates that God is the God who acts in history, who creates out of nothing, and who brings life out of death.

Friends, we believe in the God of creation who has acted and continues to act within history. We can place our hope for the future in God because God has acted in the past and he continues to act in the present. We can hope for a time when God will “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; [when] he will swallow up death forever” because death and sin have already been defeated by the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ resurrection is our guarantee, it is God’s promise to humanity, that he is making a way in the desert towards the new heavens and the new earth. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


God of glory, fill your church with the power

that flows from Christ’s resurrection,

that, in the midst of this broken and sinful world,

it may signal the beginning of a renewed humanity,

risen to new life with Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] Reinhard Feldmeier, Power, Service, Humility (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2014), 11.

[2] Feldmeier, 22.

[3] John Dominc Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan, “Rising up with Christ,” The Christian Century, accessed March 31, 2018,

[4] The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Piero della Francesca, 1493, Museo Civico, Sansepolcro.

[5] Anastasis, from the Karanlık Kilise (the Dark Church) Cappadocia, Turkey.

March 25, 2018 The King of the Jews
(Mark 11:1-11; 15:1-15, Philippians 2:5-11 ) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I don’t know if you can see it but I have a little pin on my lapel here. Can anyone see what it is? It is a little golden cross. The letters WSFD are etched into this cross and they stand for the West Saville Fire Department. When my dad was a young boy he lived in a town called West Saville, New York. This cross was his dad’s, my grandfather. My grandpa had this cross because he was the pastor of the church in West Saville and also the chaplain for the West Saville Fire Department. When my grandfather died, my grandmother gave me this pin because I was going to become a pastor just like my grandfather. She told me that every week she had to take the pin out of the suit my grandfather wore the Sunday before and put it on the suit he was going to wear the coming Sunday. So whenever I wear this pin, I think of my grandfather.

I wonder if you have something special that helps you remember someone you love. Maybe you have a favorite toy that your aunt or uncle gave to you. Maybe you have a shirt or a dress that your grandparents gave to you. Maybe you have a doll or a game that your cousin gave to you. Do you have anything like that? So whenever you play with your special toy, or wear your special shirt or dress, you remember whoever gave it to you.

This morning you all marched around waving palm branches. We do that because it helps us remember when Jesus came into Jerusalem. His disciples and all the people along the road grabbed palm branches and sang songs as they walked with Jesus into Jerusalem.

So we wave the palm branches because it helps us remember Jesus, but why do you suppose the people walking into Jerusalem that day waved the palm branches? Well, King Solomon had palm branches carved into the walls of the temple (1 Kings 6:29). The temple was the place that God was present with his people Israel. So the Jewish people saw palm branches as a symbol of God’s presence with them. When they saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem, they hoped that he would be their king, and that mean that God would be with them again. So we too can wave the palm branches not only to remember that day Jesus came into Jerusalem, but also to remember that in Jesus God was and is with us in a very special way. [end]

* * * * * * * * * *

On Thursday students from Parkland, Florida, attended an assembly at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Southwest Washington, D.C., an urban charter prep school whose students are almost all African American, and from very low income families. They came to invite the Marshall students to join them in their March for Our Lives which was held yesterday in downtown D.C., and drew an estimated 800,000 people. The purpose of the March was to demand that Congress take legislative action that addresses school safety and gun violence.

There are many things that have impressed me and others about these Parkland students.  One thing stood out in this meeting and in some interviews I heard leading up to this event. David Hogg, one of the Parkland students, addressed the assembly and said, “We’ve seen again and again the media focus on school shootings and oftentimes be biased toward white-privileged students. Many of these communities [meaning communities such as Southwest D.C.] are disproportionately affected by gun violence, but they don’t get the same media attention that we do.”[1] The Parkland students are very aware that the high profile, mass school shootings almost always take place in relatively wealthy, white suburbs, but that students who live in many urban areas deal with gun violence on the streets on a more constant basis. At one point one of the Parkland students asked who among the Marshall students had known a friend or relative who had died from gun violence. Dozens of hands shot into the air.

What impressed me was that the Parkland students are not just seeking to get their message heard. They are reaching out to other teens, in other settings, from other contexts. They are using the media attention focused on Parkland to bring to light the violence and fear that many urban teens live with their whole lives. While they marched yesterday for “Our Lives,” they seek to make the “our” bigger than themselves.

The “March for Our Lives” was a deliberate political action. It was a protest march. We probably think of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem as just some sort of religious event. Jesus and many Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem to celebrate a religious feast, the Feast of Passover. In the context of the Roman occupation of Israel, however, the Feast of Passover always had explosively political overtones. During Passover the Jewish people celebrated their liberation from the land of Egypt and slavery. For the Jews of Jesus’ day, Passover piqued their hopes for a Messiah, a savior, someone who would lead Israel in rebellion against the Romans. They longed for the return of the King.

And so Jesus deliberately sets the scene. He tells his disciples to go where they will find a colt for him to ride upon. They find it and bring it back. Jesus mounts it and rides down the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. The disciples and the pilgrims walking along the road pick up on the imagery taken from Zechariah 9:9, “See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt the foal of a donkey.” And so the disciples and the people gather palm branches, wave them in the air and lay them on the ground in front of Jesus as they sing the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Save us! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And to make their hopes clear they sing, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:9-10). The crowds get that Jesus claims to be the King of the Jews.

Now when we look at something that Jesus does, we should always consider it from two perspectives: from a human perspective and from a divine perspective. For we believe that Jesus was God made flesh, both human and divine. So we have to ask what is Jesus doing in this story as a human, and what is Jesus doing in this story as God.

The first thing that Jesus does as a human is to stage a non-violent, or rather an anti-violence, protest. Like the students marching on Washington, Jesus is rejecting the weapons of war. He rides into Jerusalem as a King not on a warhorse, but on a colt, and not the colt of a horse, but the colt of a donkey. He rides into Jerusalem, in other words, not as a conquering warrior, but as a servant. Jesus, the King, the Messiah, will overcome the violent oppression of Rome not with a sword, but with humble service. Zechariah 9:10 reads, “I will take away the chariots from Ephraim and the war horses from Jerusalem, and the battle bow will be broken. He [that is the coming King] will proclaim peace to the nations. His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.” Zechariah prophesied that God would bring peace and justice through the coming King of the Jews, but not by breaking the weapons of Babylon, or of Rome, not by breaking the weapons of the oppressors, but by breaking the weapons of the oppressed. God brings peace by breaking the weapons we rely upon rather than relying upon God.

And so as the King of the Jews Jesus ends up standing before Pilate. He refuses to answer to the insults, the accusations, and the beatings he receives. He admits that he is the King of the Jews and so receives the sentence pronounced over him by the crowds, “Crucify him.” The same crowds, mind you, who hailed him as the son of David just a week before. The irony is that the crowds probably turn on Jesus because he fails to take up arms against the Romans. He used a non-violent, anti-violence image to indicate to them that he was in deed the Messiah, but when he fails to lead a rebellion, they view him as a failed Messiah and clamor for him to be crucified.

Over the past several weeks we have been thinking about how God brings us out of our exile and the wilderness and back into communion with him. Several times in the past few weeks we have seen how God has done this by working with covenants. He made a covenant with Abraham, promising to be his God and calling Abraham to worship him simply because he is God. He made a covenant with Israel, promising to be their God and calling them to live in obedience to him as an example to the nations of what life in communion with God could be like. Last week we heard that God promised to make a new covenant with his people. We saw that through the Holy Spirit God would “put the law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Ezekiel 31:33).

The second thing Jesus does as a human is to fulfill another aspect of the new covenant.  As the King of the Jews Jesus represents God’s people. He thus fulfills the covenant on behalf of God’s people. Jesus does for Israel what Israel kept failing to do. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, argues that the Bible is one long story of God speaking to humans and humans responding to God. “Here, in the story of Jesus,” he writes, “is the story in which we see what an unequivocal obedience and love look like. Here is the story where we see a response to God so full of integrity, so whole, that it reflects the act of God that draws it out.”[2]  “See,” the prophet says, “your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation.” God now puts his law in our minds and writes it in our hearts because in Jesus Israel has finally obeyed him fully and completely. In Christ we stand before God as those who are righteous and so God, through the Holy Spirit, begins to transform our hearts so that we willingly follow him.

So as a human, as the King of the Jews, Jesus first breaks the violence of human beings and our reliance upon our own strength. In other words he breaks our rebellion against God. Second, he leads us back into full obedience to God so that we may obey God fully. And third, as a human being, Jesus trusts God fully. As the King of the Jews, Jesus places his whole life into the hands of God, and though innocent, submits to the punishment of the cross. In this way Jesus brings salvation for he becomes our sacrificial lamb. On the night of the Passover Mark tells us that

Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. (Mark 14:22-24).

Jesus is the innocent one who is sacrificed for the sins of the guilty. And his sacrifice is accepted because he is full of faith and fully faithful. He trusts and obeys God fully. And so when Jesus dies, the curtain in the temple in front of the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence dwelled with his people, is torn in two. The barrier that separated humanity from God is ripped apart. Jesus’ sacrifice brings Israel out of exile and back into communion with God.

Jesus does all that as a human, as the King of the Jews, but we must also remember that Jesus acts not only as a human, but as God. As I mentioned in my children’s sermon, the palm branches the people waved as Jesus road into Jerusalem reminded them of God’s presence with them in the temple. The people of Israel looked to the return of their King not only as the time when Israel would be freed from her oppressors, but also as the time when God himself would return to them. In Zechariah’s prophecy, after the return of the king riding on a colt in 9:9, verse 14 reads, “Then the Lord will appear over them; his arrow will flash like lightning, the Sovereign Lord will sound the trumpet; he will march in the storms of the south.” Jesus not only brings Israel to God, but God to Israel for he himself is God.

The Apostle Paul puts God’s movement towards humans in Jesus like this:

[Jesus], being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,

he humbled himself

by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!

And so Jesus came not only to bring Israel to God and God to Israel, but humanity to God and God to humanity. If Israel claimed God to be “our God,” God comes to Israel in Jesus to expand the “our” to include people from every tribe and tongue. What Jesus did for Israel, he did for all humanity. And God comes to Israel through Jesus in order to come to all humanity. And so Paul concludes:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place

and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11)

Of course Paul quotes this beautiful hymn to Christ because he desires the church in Philippi and us to live in a certain way. “Your attitude,” he writes, “should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (2:5). In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


We praise you, O God,

for your redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.

Today he entered the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph

and was proclaimed Messiah and king

by those who spread garments and branches along his way.

Let these branches be signs of his victory,

That he has ended humanities exile from God

and brought God into communion with us.

Grant that we who carry them

may follow him in the way of the cross,

that, dying and rising with him, we may bear witness to his coming kingdom;

through Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Marissa J. Lang, “Parkland, D.C. Students Make Plea for Tougher Gun Laws ahead of March for Our Lives,” Washington Post, March 22, 2018, sec. Local,

[2] Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer, First Edition edition (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014), 35.

March 18, 2018 The New Covenant
(John 12:20-30; Jeremiah 31:31-34) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a young owl who lived in her mother’s nest. One day the mother owl scooted the chick to the edge of the nest and said, “You are now old enough to fly. Spread your wings and trust the wind.” With that she scooted the chick out of the nest. The chick started flapping her wings and she fluttered to the ground, but she did not fly. The next day the mother owl said, “Spread you wings and trust the wind,” and scooted her chick out of the nest. The chick started flapping her wings and she fluttered to the ground, but she did not fly. And so again the next day the mother owl said, “Spread your wings and trust the wind.” And this time, when the mother owl scooted her out of the nest the chick spread her wings and she glided through the air. [Throw paper airplane] The chick flew up and down, left and right as she learned to trust in the wind.

Sometimes when we think about God, we think that our relationship to God is mainly about all the things God wants us to do. We think about all the ways we have to obey God. But then we can be like that owl chick when she is pushed out of the nest who flapped and flapped and flapped her wings, but couldn’t fly. We try to obey God on our own strength and we try to please God with our own efforts. But God made owls with wings that catch the wind and he made us with spirits that catch the Holy Spirit. We were made to trust in God and so the only real way to obey God and to please God is to first trust in God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter gets into trouble with the new professor, Professor Umbridge. [1] When Harry arrives in her office to serve his detention, she orders him to write out “I must not tell lies.”  “How many times,” he asks. “As long as it takes for the message to sink in,” she replies.  He begins to take out his quill, but she stops him and gives him her own, special quill. As Harry begins to write he feels a prick on his hand. The stinging continues until he notices that as he writes, the letters are cut into his hand and then quickly disappear. Professor Umbridge’s quill is a magical quill that she has turned into a sadistic form of corporal punishment. After a second evening of detention, “I must not tell lies” blazes across the back of Harry’s hand as though he had been branded with a hot iron.

Of course the lesson doesn’t really sink in to Harry. This is in part due to Harry’s determination not to let Professor Umbridge get the better of him, but more so to the fact that what Harry had said was in fact the truth. He had not been lying. If the incident had happened today, Umbridge would have accused Harry of publishing fake news. In spite of his punishment Harry continues to hold to what he said is the truth. No matter how much Umbridge scars Harry with her magic quill, she can’t turn Harry into something he is not.

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at how God leads us out of exile and the wilderness and back home to him and to wholeness.  God first calls us to trust in him as God. That is to trust him with our whole lives and then to follow him in all aspects of our lives.  Last week Mike Moore spoke of how the we have to be born again by the Holy Spirit. This morning I would like to look a bit more at our own efforts to make ourselves right with God and what it means to trust in the Holy Spirit.  

When God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments, this was part of the covenant he was making with them. At Mount Sinai God said to them, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:4-6). God saved Israel form Egypt and then gave them the Ten Commandments so that they could fulfill the mission he set out for them, to be a holy nation of priests, to demonstrate to the world what life in communion with God was like.

The problem was that Israel could never live up to her end of the covenant. Almost from the beginning she began to break it. In a sense, God’s first covenant with Israel was sort of the reverse of how Umbridge tried to corrupt Harry Potter with her magic quill. And if we have ever tried to become better people, if we have ever tried to obey God’s laws, if we have ever tried to not sin, we too have probably experienced the same thing. And that is this. We try to change who we are by applying some form of outward pressure on ourselves or by changing our outward behavior.

Some of you may have heard this story before, but when I was in High School my older brother Dan excelled in art. Our school gave such students an incredible amount of freedom to develop their passion. Dan, along with a select group of a dozen other students, took independent studies in art. Mr. Valemakie, the art teacher, turned one of the art rooms into studio space so each of these students had their own space to work on their art projects whenever they had free time. And, of course, being art students, they always had the latest music playing on the boom box. Bands that you couldn’t hear on the radio but had to buy at the record shops down in campus town.

Well, I thought that was pretty cool. After receiving an A in my freshman art class, I asked Mr. Valemakie if I too could take an independent study in art. He agreed, but since I hadn’t yet proved myself, I didn’t get my own studio space, but was allowed to work in the art studio on one of the counters. The problem was that I did not love art. Dan loved art. He was an artist. He and the others worked on their own projects whenever they got the chance. I just thought it was cool, but I had little passion for it. I was not an artist at heart. And so at the end of the semester, after turning in a couple of photographs, one painting,  and a model for a sculpture, Mr. Valemakie gave me a grade that told me he knew the meaning of grace, but it came with the understanding that I would look for my true passion elsewhere.

In his book, Desiring God’s Will, David Benner talks about the difference between willfulness and willingness.[2] Willfulness is when we set ourselves out to accomplish something through our own grit and determination. We admire willfulness as a culture here in North America. Willfulness lies at the heart of the American story. A couple immigrates to the United States from Ghana. Although a doctor and a lawyer back home, they can only find jobs as a janitor and a legal aid here in the states. But, working long hours and sometimes two jobs a piece, they provide a decent life for their children. The children go to college and they become a doctor and a lawyer, fulfilling the dreams of their parents. This hard work and determination, this set your mind to something and overcoming all the obstacles, that is what we admire here in the United States. Or, at least that is the myth we tell ourselves.

Now there is much to admire in willfulness, and it is necessary in life to have some level of grit and determination. But reliance solely on willfulness ends up being harmful and destructive particularly to our spiritual life. When we set ourselves up to follow God’s laws and please him by our own determination, we set ourselves up for failure. Professor Umbridge couldn’t make Harry into a liar by trying to force him to deny the truth because Harry was, at heart, truthful. Our problem, however, is the opposite. We can’t make ourselves be righteous and obedient to God’s will because we are, at heart, sinners. We can’t force ourselves to be obedient and kind and loving, but we can put on a pretty good show.

And that is particularly where the danger lies. If we think following God is all about doing the right things and being the right kind of person, we can fake it. On the outside we can dress ourselves up as loving, kind, and generous people who are devoted to God. But on the inside we merely feed the person we are trying to cover up. On the inside we begin to take pride in ourselves for being better than others. On the inside we begin to judge others for their failings. But of course we use our pride and our judgementalism in order to hide our own failings from others, from ourselves, and ultimately from God.

The Apostle Paul would call this person, or this persona, that we build up the “old self.” Many who write about spiritual transformation today call this the false self. This is the old, false self because we were not made to be independent, autonomous beings. We were not made to be self-determined. We were not made to make ourselves through our willfulness. While the truth about ourselves is that we are sinners, there is a deeper truth. The deeper truth about ourselves is that we were made in the image of God to be in communion with and dependent upon God and others. And those who have faith in Christ have another, deeper truth - we are being remade into our new selves. Those with a willingness to submit to God in Christ are being reborn into their true selves.

According to Benner the difference between willfulness and willingness is a matter of direction. “Looked at carefully,” he writes, “willfulness is more against something than for something.”[3] I tried to exert myself in art class over and against my true passions and loves, and failed miserably. In our self-determined efforts to follow God’s will, we strive against our own sinful nature. We strive against what people might think of us if they knew the truth. We strive against others so that we look better than them. But, if we are honest, in all this striving against we fail miserably.

In Jeremiah, God states how his first covenant with Israel was not working. He says that he will make a new covenant that will be different from the old because, “they broke my covenant though I was a husband to them.”  In contrast, in the new covenant God promises, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” Benner writes, “Genuine Christian spirituality places the priority on inner transformation, not outward routines.”[4] Worship, scripture reading, prayer and the other spiritual disciplines are a means to an end. They are assistants to a changed heart and a changed relationship with God. They are means of grace by which we open ourselves up to the work of the Holy Spirit. They are the tools of willingness.

As opposed to willfulness, willingness is an “act of willing surrender,” as Benner writes. Willingness is “a choice of openness, a choice of abandonment of self-determination, a choice of cooperation with God.”[5] In his letter to the Philippians Paul urges the church to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13). As we give up on our own powers, our own grit and determination, as we surrender ourselves to God, as we die to our old, false selves, God begins to write his law, his will, on our hearts, thus raising up, bringing to life our new, true selves.

Last week we were reminded that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” For, “just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-16) This week Jesus says much the same again, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32) 

On the cross Jesus took up our old humanity, that striving, self-determined, do it my way, humanity and died to it and to the sin that controlled it. He died to humanity’s willfulness so he could lead humanity into willingness. “Not what I will, but what you will,” he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). He did this because it is as he said, “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The one who loves their life will lose it, while the one who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).  That is the one who dies to the old, false self and allows God to raise the new self will live in communion with God.

In my children’s sermon I spoke of how God made owl’s wings to catch the wind. There is simple way that we can see how this works. So if you take a small strip of paper, put it up to your lips and blow underneath it, what is going to happen? The air will push the paper up, correct? Now, what if I put the paper beneath my lips and blow over top? What will happen? Nothing? [Blows and the paper rises up]  You see the air moving faster over the top of the paper creates lower air pressure above the paper, which draws the paper up, while the higher air pressure below pushes the paper up. God made bird wings so that the air flowing around them would flow faster over the top than the bottom creating this automatic lift.   

Friends, God made us in his image, in the image of a triune God, in the image of a God that is always and fundamentally interdependent and in community. We were made to be in community and dependent upon God and interdependent upon others. But we sinned through our willfulness. We sinned by our attempt to be self-determined and autonomous. The truth of our selves is that this led us into exile away from God and into the wilderness. The truth of our selves is that we continue to struggle with our willfulness. The truth of our selves is that we are sinners. The deeper truth, however, is that in Christ, through our willingness, through our surrender to God and our trust in God, we are forgiven sinners and the Holy Spirit, the breath of God, is catching our wings of to raise us into our new and truer selves. Friends in Christ, spread your wings and trust in the Breath of God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God,

your Son came into the world

to free us all from sin and death.

Breathe upon us with the power of your Spirit,

that we may be raised to new life in Christ,

and serve you in holiness and righteousness all our days;

through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, forever and ever. Amen.

[1] J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix (New York: Scholastic Paperbacks, 2004), 266.

[2] David G. Benner, Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God, Expanded edition (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2015), 17 ff.

[3] Benner, 23.

[4] Benner, 29.

[5] Benner, 23.

March 4, 2018 No other gods
(Exodus 20:1-17) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a lion who was queen of the forest. One day all the animals came before the queen to learn what kind of animal each was. The monkey came before the queen and bowed low. “You are a monkey,” the queen said, “You may walk upon the earth and swing in the trees, but you shall not fly.” The great eagle came next. “You are an eagle,” the queen said. “You shall fly through the air, but you shall not swim in the water.” Finally came the fish. ‘You are a fish. You shall swim in the river, but you shall not walk upon the earth.”

Each of the animals went home and they were content to be the animal they were created to be … for a while. One day the monkey said to himself. “Who does the lion queen think she is by telling me what I can and cannot do.” So the monkey climbed the tallest tree it could find. It jumped off, spread its arms out and, of course, began flapping wildly as it hurtled to the ground. At just the last second the eagle swooped down and caught the monkey. Setting him down on the ground, the eagle said, “Silly monkey, you are a monkey. You cannot fly.”

Then one day the fish thought, “Who does the lion queen think she is, telling me what I can and cannot do. I want to explore the land.” So the fish flopped up out of the water and onto the river bank. It flopped around and then began gasping for air. The monkey came running up, picked the fish up and tossed it back into the river. “Silly fish,” said the monkey. “You are a fish. You cannot walk up on the land.”

The next day the eagle thought, “Who does the lion queen think she is, telling me what I can and cannot do. I want to see what is at the bottom of the river.” So the eagle flew high up and then came down as fast as she could and dove into the river. She dove down to the bottom, but then got caught in the current. Gasping for breath, she felt something pushing it out of the current and up to the surface. “Silly eagle,” said the fish. “You are an eagle. You cannot swim under water.”

Sometimes we may think that God’s commands are kind of silly. Maybe we think we know better and can decide for ourselves what we can and cannot do. But God gave us his commandments because he loves us. By following his commands, we learn to be and to behave as the people God created us to be. [End] 

* * * * * * * * * *

I suppose that the Ten Commandments are probably taken out of their context more than about any other passage from scripture except the Lord’s Prayer. We use the Ten Commandments as this list of don’ts, well, and one do that comes to us as if they dropped down out of heaven. Now while I do believe that the Ten Commandments are commands that apply to all people of all times, and that they address the whole of human life, it would be good to first look at them in their biblical context, to see how and why they address all peoples and the whole of life.

The setting is that God has redeemed Israel and he has brought them into the wilderness to Mount Sinai. Moses is now going up and down the mountain to speak with God and then to tell the people what God has said. In this way God is making a covenant with the people. In 19:4 we read:

This is what you [Moses] are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.'

God has been Israel’s God, and now he is instructing them on how to be his people. His desire is that they be his holy, set apart people so that the world might come to know something about God through them. They are to be a priestly nation and priests serve, like Moses, as intermediaries between God and others. The Ten Commandments are thus rules for the whole of life. They are in concise form how the Israelites are to live their whole lives in obedience to God so that the whole world might come to know how to live before God and thus to be truly and fully human.

Now what struck me about this passage I just quoted was the first line. “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob,” and then he repeats himself, “and what you are to tell the people of Israel.” Someone pointed out in our Classis meeting last week that it is an oddity that Jacob is sometimes referred to as Israel and sometimes as Jacob even after God changes his name. Several people in the Bible have their names changed: Abraham and Sarah, for instance. But after God changes their name they are never referred to by their old name, always the new one. Except Jacob / Israel.

So why is that? Well God changes people’s names because names have meaning. Jacob is named Jacob because he comes out of his mother’s womb grasping at his brother’s heel. Jacob literally means “heel grabber.” Figuratively it means someone who deceives another. As the story goes, of course, Jacob lives up to his name. He deceives his brother. He deceives his father and his uncle Laban. But after a life of deception, and a life mostly lived in exile, Jacob is given another name, Israel. Israel may mean a couple of things. It can mean, “God prevails,” or “God contends,” but it can also mean “one who struggles with God.” When Jacob is given his name he is told, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled with God and with humans, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).

Jacob / Israel is the one who struggles with God and with humans. The descendants of Jacob and the people of Israel are thus those who continue to struggle with God and with humans. Are we not also the descendants of Jacob and the people of Israel? Do we not struggle with God and with humans? And is this not a key aspect of the  wilderness, of our experience of exile in which we find ourselves?

Are we not sometimes like the animals of the forest who try to disregard the commandments of the King and to be something we were not created to be? Are we not, like Adam and Eve, sometimes in exile because of our sin, because we have distanced ourselves from God by following our own laws?  Maybe our exile is because we struggle with God in this way. Or maybe we are in some form of exile or wilderness because others have sinned against us. Maybe it is because of our struggle with other human beings. Or maybe our exile or wilderness is found in our struggle with God over why he allows certain things to happen – why is there so much injustice? Why have do I have cancer? Why have I lost my job, or why can’t I find a job? In many ways our exile, our wilderness is a result of our struggles with God and other humans.

Last week we looked at the first step out of exile, to let God be God. That means to trust in God simply because God is God. It means to trust in God beyond the existential doubts and anxieties and fears we may have. Ultimately we are saved out of our exile and wilderness by trusting in God not because he will save us, but by trusting in God simply because he is God.

If the first step out of exile is to let God be God, the second step is found in the Ten Commandments. The second step out of exile is to allow God to have complete sway over our whole lives, over all aspects of our lives. It is, in short, as the Ten Commandments begin, to have no other gods before God

Many have noted that the Ten Commandments are divided into two sections. The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God, and the last six commandments deal with our relationship to humans. They are, in this way, a guide to how put an end to our struggles with God and with humans. They are a guide to how we are to live at peace, in shalom with God and with others.

So if we look at the first four commandments, we have a summary of how we ought to relate to God. First of all, God is to be God, and that means he is to be the only God. We are to have no other gods except the one true God. Like the Israelites, we continue to fail at this for we have created our own, modern gods. Money, Military and Economic power, and Success, to name a few.

We often think of the second commandment as the one that forbids idolatry because it actually forbids the making of images to which we bow down. Humans often break both commandments at the same time. They not only worship another god, but they craft an image to represent their god. In our worship of Money and Power, we don’t make physical images, but we do develop ideologies. But it is possible to break the second command without breaking the first. The Israelites made the golden calves in order to worship God through them. Today I think we can break the second commandment by making idols of our religious practices, our theologies, and even by making an idol of the Bible. We worship these human, and partial human creations in the case of the Bible, as a means to our worship of God. But instead of offering true worship to God, we seek to exert some level of control over God through these the idols we make.

The third commandment speaks to how we are to address God. We are to honor and respect God in all our speech.

The first four commandments address several aspects of our relationship with God. How we relate to God in general, materially, and how we speak about God. The fourth commandment addresses time. We are to set one day of seven apart when we don’t work so that we recognize that God is the Lord of time itself. Doing no work on the Sabbath is a gift to us for then we recognize that God is God. We are not ultimately responsible for all things. He is.

So now let us turn to see how the last six commandments cover perhaps the whole range of human behaviors and interests towards each other. The fifth commandment teaches us to honor not just father and mother, but all those who are in proper authority over us. The sixth commandment teaches us not to take the life of others but also to look out for the welfare of our fellow human beings. The seventh commandment forbids us from committing adultery, but also encourages us to honor our sexuality. The eighth commandment addresses how we should treat other’s possessions and what they are rightfully owed. As the third commandment deals with our speech about God, so the ninth teaches us to speak with truthfulness about our neighbors. Thus the fifth through the ninth commandments cover a whole range of human activity: relationships of authority, basic life, marriage and sexuality, property, and our speech.

The tenth commandment, like the first, is more a general commandment. It addresses not so much our actions, but our desires. We should not only not steal our neighbor’s car or commit adultery with his wife, we shouldn’t even desire to have his car or his wife. We should not only not kill our neighbor, but we should not hate her. Rather we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

Now after going through the Ten Commandments and thinking about what they teach us to do and not to do, it is easy to get things backwards. It is easy to think that the way we are saved, brought out of exile is by being good people and doing what we are told. We must not, however, forget the first step. The first step is to have faith in God. To accept the reality that he is God, more so, that he is our God and we are his people. The second step depends on the first for it is to live out of that reality. It is to put that faith into faithful motion. To follow the ways of God is a step out of exile and the wilderness because it is a move towards our true humanity. It is to put an end to our struggles with God and with humans and to move towards the people God created us to be. But we can only be faithful in taking this step when we base it not on our own efforts and strengths, but on what God says to Israel in the introduction to the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” The second step is taken in response to the grace and mercy of the one true God. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

February 25, 2018 … and I will be their God.
(Genesis 17:1-16; Mark 8:31-38) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] Once upon a time there was a prince who loved a princess from the neighboring country. One day he decided he would ask her to marry him, so he gathered up all his bags of gold and travelled across his lands to her castle. When he arrived he had his servants carry all his bags of gold and to lay them before her. “Fairest Princess,” he said. “To show you how much I love you, I have brought all my bags of gold and laid them at your feet. Will you marry me?” The princess looked at him and the bags of gold and said, “No, I will not marry you for all your bags of gold, wealthy Prince.” The Prince went home saddened, but determined not to give up.

He thought and he thought about how he could win the heart of the Princess. Then one day he saddled his horse. He sharpened his sword. He filled his quiver with arrows, and he grabbed his lance. He set off into the mountains and there fought and slayed the evil dragon of the mountains. He rode as hard and fast as he could to the castle of the fair princess. “Fairest Princess,” he called out to her, “I sought and I slayed the evil dragon of the mountains to show you how much I love you. Will you marry me?” The princess looked at him and at his sword, and lance, and bow and arrows, and said, “No, I will not marry you for slaying the dragon, courageous Prince.” The Prince again returned home saddened, but determined not to give up.

He thought and he thought about what he could do to win the heart of the Princess. Then one day he gathered up all his musicians and they travelled to the castle of the fair princess. When they arrived the musicians got out their instruments and began to play as the Prince began to sing. His voice rang out like the clearest of church bells and the song he sang was so sad and beautiful and joyful all at the same time that all who heard it were weeping when it was over. “Fairest Princess,” he called out to her, “I have shown you how much I love you by singing my heart to you. Will you marry me?” The Princess looked at the musicians, and at the Prince. She wiped the tears from her eyes, and said, “No, I will not marry you for your beautiful song, talented Prince.” The Prince again returned home saddened, but still determined to win her hand in marriage.

He thought and he thought about what he could do to win the heart of the Princess, but he could not think of anything more to do. He had given her his wealth. He had shown her how courageous he was. He had performed his best for her. But he loved her so. He did not know what he was going to do, but he saddled his horse and traveled to her castle. “Fairest Princess, I have given you all my gold. I have slain the evil dragon for you. I have sung my best for you. I have done all this to show you how much I love you. I have nothing more but myself to give you. Will you marry me?” The Princess looked at the Prince and said, “Yes, I will marry you. That is all I ever wanted from you, just all of you.”

Sometimes we treat God in the same way that the prince treated the princess. We try to make God love us. We think God will love us if we do all the right things, or if we pray to him often enough, or if we give our money to the poor, or if we behave ourselves all the time. But Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” Jesus is like the Fair Princess, he may think we are brave, or generous, or good because of the things we do for him, but all he really wants is us. God already loves us. We can’t make God love us. But he just wants all of who we are. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

This past week Evangelist Billy Graham passed away. He was ninety-nine years old. Billy Graham was at one time the most recognizable and most unifying figure in the Evangelical world. But he stepped out of public life several decades ago. Some people, when they reach a certain age, begin to slow down a bit. Some people, but not all, begin to think that once they reach their seventies or maybe their eighties, that maybe it is not the right time to start some new project. Maybe it is time to start slowing down.

Abram is ninety-nine years old. He has been living in the land of Canaan for 23 years. When Abram was just a youngster at age 76, God made a promise to him. “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). Abram believed God. And he waited. And he waited. Yet he remained childless and Sarai, his wife, remained barren.

So Abram decided upon a plan. He thought that he would just take Eliezer, his servant, as his heir. Maybe he could just sort of adopt Eliezer, and God could fulfill his promises through him. But God came to Abram and said, “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (15:4). And God made a covenant with Abram. He made a solemn agreement that Abram’s descendants would live in the land of Canaan.

So Abram waited. And he waited some more. Then Sarai decided upon a plan. She told Abram to have a son with her handmaiden Hagar. In that way Abram could have the son God promised him. So that is what Abram did. Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s son. And he named him Ishmael.

Ishmael grew and reached the age of maturity, 13 years old in that culture, the age when a child becomes accountable for their actions. God then appears to Abram again. Abram is now ninety-nine years old, about time to maybe retire and pass things on to the next generation. God again confirms his promises to Abram. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham and says, “You will be the father of many nations. … I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.” The Lord then instructs Abraham to circumcise himself and all men and boys in his household. This then becomes the sign of the covenant. If either party fails to live up to their part of the covenant, they will be cut off from the other.

But then God continues, “As for Sarai, you are no longer to call her Sarai, her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations.” Abraham falls on the ground laughing. “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” “What’s wrong with Ishmael?” Abraham asks. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing.” We figured it all out, says Abraham. While you have been waiting and waiting to make good on your promise, we figured it out for you. Look, you have already given me a son through Hagar!” But God brushes Abraham and Sarah’s plans aside and assures Abraham that Sarah will bear a son, and that he will call him Isaac, Laughter, and that God’s covenant with Abraham will continue through Isaac.

And so God, faithful to his promise, blessed Sarah, and she conceived. She bore a son, and they named him Laughter. The boy grew, and one imagines, became the apple of his father’s eye. Until one day God appeared to Abraham again. “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burn offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about” (22:2). And so begins perhaps one of the most troubling stories in scripture. God commands child sacrifice. But perhaps you know the story. Abraham gathers his son and his servant and the wood for the sacrifice. As they are traveling Isaac asks, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burn offering?” Abraham responds, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (22:7-8). And so with every step towards Moriah, Abraham mumbles to himself, “God will provide, God will provide.”

Over the past several weeks we have been looking at the nature of the wilderness experience, the times of exile, we all experience as humans and even as followers of Christ. During this season of Lent we will make a turn and begin to focus on our return from exile, our exit out of the wilderness. How, in other words, do we return home? How are we forgiven? How are we reconciled to God? How are we returned to wholeness?

Abraham and Sarah are the architypes of exile and living in the wilderness. God calls them out of the land of their ancestors and tells them to go to the land of Canaan. There they live as aliens for decades. During that time, they have to flee to Egypt, not once but twice, to escape famine. If Abraham and Sarah are our parents in the faith, than our faith is born out of the experience of exile and wilderness wandering. Moreover they live in the wilderness because Sarah is barren. They have no children. They thus have no future. In that culture their life is practically meaningless for they will die and be forgotten and their property will go to just a servant.

God, however, promises to be their God. He promises to bring them out of exile and the wilderness. He promises to give them a land and a progeny. He promises to make them mother and father not just of a child, not just some children, but of kings and nations! He promises to be their God and he gives them a sign to insure this promise, the sign of circumcision. But what is their part of the covenant? God promises to be their God, but what are they supposed to do?

Abraham and Sarah think they know what they should do. They do all they can to help God along. They scheme and plan to get a child for themselves, or at least for Abraham. They first look to a servant, Eliezer. Perhaps they could just appoint him as Abraham’s heir. Then Sarah gives her servant to Abraham so that he might have a child with her. As a side note, it is ironic that when they are in Egypt Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister. She is then taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. Abraham did this to save his own skin for he feared that Pharaoh would kill him and take Sarah for himself if he thought she were his wife. So both Abraham and Sarah sacrifice their marriage in order to try to help God out, in a sense.

But God comes to Abram and reconfirms his covenant with him. And he clarifies that Abraham’s son will be Sarah’s son. As an assurance he gives Abraham a sign, the sign of circumcision. This sign, however, basically means that God doesn’t necessarily want any particular thing from Abraham. He doesn’t want Abraham to act on his own to fulfill some part of the deal. What circumcision means is that God wants Abraham, period. In the covenant God promises to be our God. What he wants from Abraham and from us is that we let him be God. But to let God be God means that we allow him to have us, all of us, our entire being. In circumcision part of the male body is cut off to signify that if we fail in the covenant, we will be cut off, all of us. To be a part of the covenant is to be all in. It is to let God be our God.

That means that we have to learn to trust God, to have faith that God will be God. In her book, The Vulnerable Pastor, Mandy Smith writes about how she and her husband left Australia, following the call of God into ministry, but also with the faith that God would someday call them back to ministry in Australia. As Seminary led to parish ministry in the states, and then to frequent but unsuccessful applications to ministry opportunities in Australia ever few years, Smith finally realized that she had to stop trusting in the God who would bring her home. She believed that maybe God was asking her, “Do you trust in the God who will take you home? Or do you just trust?”[1] She then compares her experience to that of Abraham and Sarah, “I wonder if God was asking Abraham, Do you trust in the God who will give you a child? Or do you just trust?” For Abraham that meant, ironically, that he had to trust in God not because of the promises God made, but in spite of the promises he made. Abraham had to learn to trust not that God would give him a son, but just to trust in God.

Jesus teaches much the same thing. He begins to teach his disciples that he must go up to Jerusalem to be handed over to the religious and political authorities, to be killed by them, and then to rise from the dead. He teaches them that his role as the Messiah is to place his whole self, his life and his death, into the hands of God. His role is to in a sense, give up his immortality, to give up his being all powerful and all knowing. His role is to empty himself of his divinity and to let God be God.

He then says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). The cross we each must bear is the thing or the many things that we ourselves must die to in order to allow God to be God. Jesus, in a sense, died to be being God. We just have to die to pretending to be God. We may need to die to our trust in own strengths and abilities. We may need to die to our trust in politics or in wealth. We may need to die to our desire for God to rescue us out of our wildness. Whenever we put stipulations on God, whenever we say, I trust in God because I trust he will rescue me, then our god becomes the Rescue instead of God himself. God wants to be our God, but that means we must allow him to completely define and manage our relationship to him. We have to trust that God will be our God.

But when we allow God to be God, when we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus, when we lose our lives to God and to the good news of his kingdom, then we truly find ourselves, for then we are truly found in God. When we truly trust God just to be God, then we begin to notice more and more how God is faithful to his promises to us in ways we never imagined. We begin to notice how he is blessing us in ways we may not have been longing for. Maybe we had hoped, like Mandy Smith, that God would one day take us home. But if we trust in God to be God, we may find that God does bring us home, but not by bringing us back to the home we thought was home, but by redefining for us what home is. Maybe we had hoped to have a certain kind of career, or a certain kind of family life. If we allow God to be God, we will find that he will fulfill those hopes, but in ways that may redefine those hopes. If we lose our lives by allowing God to be God, then we will find our lives in what God provides for us. My friends, God has promised to be our God. Let us allow God to be our God. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Into your hands, O Lord, we place our whole selves, trusting that your vision for our lives and the life of the world is far richer than we could ever ask or imagine. Renew in us daily the choice to lose our lives, to pick up our cross, and to follow you in loving service. Amen

[1] Mandy Smith, The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2015), 95.

February 11, 2018 Jars of Clay
(2 Corinthians 4:3-7; Mark 9:2-9) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s Sermon] Can anyone tell me what this is?  It is a chrysalis. Who can tell me what is inside it or who made it? A caterpillar. And what will come out of it? A butterfly. So when a caterpillar is born, it begins to eat, and it eats and eats and eats, and it grows, and grows, and grows. Until one day the caterpillar has grown enough. It attaches itself to a twig or a branch and then it spins this chrysalis with silk thread it makes. It closes itself up inside, and then it waits. And while it’s waiting, it changes. It transforms. And when it is fully formed, it breaks through the cocoon and comes out as a butterfly.

Christians have long taken the butterfly as a symbol for resurrection. You know that when Jesus died on the cross they laid him in the tomb, but three days later he was raised from the dead, he was resurrected. The caterpillar makes the cocoon and sort of dies for a time, but then the caterpillar is resurrected as a butterfly.

In our story this morning, Jesus goes up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John, and his body is transfigured before them. It shines with a brilliant white light. And two of God’s servants who had died many, many years ago, Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus. In the story this is before Jesus dies on the cross. I think God transfigures Jesus and sends Moses and Elijah to talk with Jesus to help Jesus have the courage and trust he will need to die on the cross. God is sort of showing Jesus that death is not the end. So Jesus doesn’t have to be afraid of dying because God has promised to raise him from the dead.

This morning I have pictures for each of you of a caterpillar, a cocoon, and a butterfly. I want you to take these to help you remember that although Jesus died, God raised him from the dead. And even though each of us may die, or even though someone we love like a grandparent may die, God will one day resurrect us and give us new life, just like he resurrected Jesus and gave him new life. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

In his short story, Christmas, Vladimir Nabakov writes of Sleptsov, a wealthy Russian nobleman grieving the recent death of his young son. He enters the coldness of their summer house that is locked up for the winter, and goes to his son’s study. He begins rummaging through his sons things – a notebook used as a diary, an old net with holes in it, spreading boards, black pins – the paraphernalia of his sons hobby, collecting butterflies and moths. His son would capture his specimens, pin them to the boards and label them with their appropriate Latin names. In the desk he also finds a cookie tin with a large exotic cocoon. On his death bed, his son had regretted leaving the cocoon behind in the summer home, but consoled himself that the chrysalis had probably died.

Gathering up some of his son’s things, Sleptsov puts them in a box and returns from the main house to the annex of the summer home, which his servant has now heated. He pours over his son’s notebook reading entries of where and how he captured various butterflies, what the weather was like, and various other activities until he groans, “I can’t bear it any longer.” Nabokov writes:

Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible – and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles … (sic) At that instant there was a sudden snap – a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin burst its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table. It stopped, holding on to the surface with six black furry feet, and started palpitating strangely. It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room, and the warmth had penetrated its taught leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out it was slowly, miraculously expanding. .. [I]ts wings – still feeble, still moist – kept growing and unfolding, and now they were developing to the limit set for them by God. … And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.[1]

In the midst of his grief, Sleptsov beholds nature’s model of resurrection, the transformation of a worm into a butterfly. Nabakov narrates the moment so that the reader is caught up in its beauty and awe. As one reads, you feel your chest rising as the butterfly shudders with “tender, ravishing, almost human happiness,” and then falling with a shared joy and contentment. The thing about life, human life, life in the natural world, is that if you take the time to notice, it will not fail to inspire and give you hope. The same is also true, if you take time to notice, of resurrection.

If you were to ask most people what Christianity was about, they might say something about Jesus coming to save the world. Some would certainly add that he came to save us from our sins. You would probably get lots of answers about how Jesus teaches us to love one another. And you might even get one or two answers that included something about Jesus rising from the dead. But unless resurrection is at the core of any answer about what Christianity is about, such an answer is woefully insufficient.

At its core, Christianity is a belief in the resurrection. It is the faith that after Jesus died on the cross, he was laid in a tomb, but on the third day, he rose again to a new and different yet similar physical, bodily life. The resurrection of Jesus, however, is not just a demonstration that he was actually the Messiah, or that he is God, the second person of the Trinity. It is not just a demonstration of God’s power and might. The resurrection of Christ, as Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 4:14, just after our text, that “we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus.” The resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee, it is the down payment, that those with faith in Christ will be resurrected too and will live in the age to come in his presence.

What’s more, the resurrection of Jesus is a guarantee, a down payment, that God will, in a sense, “resurrect” this whole world. Out of the brokenness and sin of this world, God will create a new world of wholeness and holiness. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s victory over sin, and death, and evil. It is the inauguration of the new age of God’s shalom-filled Kingdom, with Christ as its King. When we say that Jesus came to save us, it only makes full sense in the context of this reign of Christ over the whole creation.

It is no surprise, then, that within the arc of the biblical story from Eden to the New Jerusalem, resurrection serves as the primary narrative theme. All the themes of wilderness wanderings toward the promised land, of exile and return, of moving from sin to salvation, from sickness to health, from scarcity to abundance, all these themes point to and are summed up in the move from death to life, the theme of death and resurrection.

With that in mind, it becomes clear that Jesus’ transfiguration foreshadows his resurrection. In the preceding story, Jesus finally comes clean with his disciples and openly admits that he is the Christ, the Messiah. But then he begins to teach them that as the Messiah he must go to Jerusalem to be crucified, and then to rise from the dead. The preceding story foreshadows Jesus’ death. The transfiguration of Jesus and the appearance of two supposedly dead prophets foreshadows resurrection. To make the point clear, Jesus instructs his disciples as they are coming down the mountain not to tell anyone about what happened until he rises from the dead. And, just like his teaching about his death, the disciples don’t’ get it. Mark tells us that “they kept the matter to themselves, discussing what ‘rising from the dead’ meant” (10).

The question this text poses to us is do we get the resurrection? Does the resurrection stir in us awe and wonder? Does it inspire faith and hope in us? Does it move us to worship? Does it lead us, because of our awe, wonder, faith and hope, to do what Jesus calls us to do in the preceding story where he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:34-35).  In other words, does Jesus’ resurrection move us to die to ourselves so that we might be reborn in Christ and for his Kingdom?

Or does it lead us to some other reaction as exemplified by the disciples? Does it lead to confusion and even unbelief? Does the disciple’s pre-modern pondering about what “rising from the dead” could mean, turn in to modern skepticism?  For we all know that science proves that people don’t rise from the dead? Or does it morph into post-modern relativism? All kinds of religions have stories of resurrection, after all. Or does Peter’s attempt to capture the moment, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5), – does that turn into some form of religiosity that shields us from the claim resurrection makes upon us.

Let me suggest that when Peter offers to put up three shelters for Elijah, Moses, and Jesus, he is attempting to domesticate the moment through religious piety. The shelters Peter offers to build are not just any shelters. They are the tents, the tabernacles, the booths that the Jewish people built and still build today for the Festival of Booths. Every year Jewish people will build temporary shacks or tents to remember how they lived in tents for forty years while the wandered the desert of Sinai. The festival is meant to remind them of their time of wilderness wandering when God was so spectacularly and specially present to the children of Israel in the fiery pillar by night and the cloud by day. It reminded them of how God formed and shaped them into a holy nation by teaching them to rely upon him every day for manna and quail. It reminded them of how God saved them from the nations that threatened to wipe them out. It reminded them of the times God caused water to flow out of a rock. It reminded them of how God redeemed them from the land of slavery and brought them to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Peter, however, wants to use the booths not as a reminder of his utter dependence up on God, but to capture this moment as if to savor it for himself. He wants to use religion for the sake of the experience itself. He wants to use religion for what he thinks is good and desirous for himself. The purpose of religion and religious practices, however, are for God to shape us for his purposes. Mark writes, “Then a cloud appeared and covered them; and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” (7). Jesus brought Peter, James and John along with him not so that they could have a moving religious experience, but so that the image of his resurrection would move them to actually listen to him and follow him.

While I would not put the Christian Reformed Church or Hessel Park Church squarely in the American Evangelical box, it is one of the dominant religious cultures we interact with. It influences us. And one of the problems with American Evangelicalism is that it is especially susceptible to turning true religion into false religiosity. In her book, Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren, writes that Evangelicalism, “while beautiful in many ways, was formed and shaped by the concept of a market-driven religious experience.” From the revival meetings held during the First Great Awakening to the camp meetings held across the American frontier as people moved westward, charismatic preachers like George Whitfield and Charles Finney tailored their sermons and their religious services to create an intense, ecstatic religious experience. Warren writes, “My subculture of Evangelicalism tends to focus on … the kind of worship that gives a rush.”[2]  The problem with this, she concludes, is that “faith becomes a consumer product – it asks little of us, affirms our values, and promises to meet our needs, but in the end it is just a quick fix that leaves us glutted and malnourished.”[3]

Ironically, one of the ways we can exile ourselves from God is through worship itself. The very thing that God gives us in order to shape us into the image of Christ and direct us to serving in his Kingdom we use to assuage our guilt, to justify our own biases, and make us feel good about ourselves. Now certainly God does meet our needs in worship. When we come to worship, we can expect God to be present to us. We will at times be relieved of our angst, freed of our guilt, comforted in our sorrow, and met in our loneliness. But we must also expect that in worship we will be challenged, upset, angered, and even made to feel guilt, sorrow and angst from time to time. Instead of approaching worship with a shopping list of expectations and demands that it conform to our tastes, we must approach worship with open hands and open hearts, receiving both the comfort and the sorrow, the guilt and forgiveness, the angst and the joy as blessings given not for our purposes, but for God’s purposes.

In the children’s sermon I said that the resurrection of Jesus is a promise to us that we too will be raised from the dead. We need not fear death. It is a comfort. But resurrection should also make us a bit uncomfortable. Resurrection, life out of death, is awe inspiring. While we are assured of new life in the resurrection of Jesus, his resurrection also reminds us that we must first die before we are reborn. The resurrection is the light of the gospel that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthian church. It is that which gives us hope and grounds our faith so that we may love others as Christ has loved us. But, says Paul, “we have this treasure in jars of clay.”  Our bodies are weak and frail. We ourselves are broken and sinful. And so “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” says Paul, “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Almighty God, whose Son was revealed in majesty

before he suffered death upon the cross:

Give us faith to perceive his glory,

that being strengthened by his grace

we may be changed into his likeness, from glory to glory;

through Jesus Christ our Lord,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and forever. Amen.

[1] Vladimir Nabakov, “Christmas,” in A Celestial Omnibus: Short Fiction on Faith (Beacon Press, 01) 34-39.

[2] Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2016), 66.

[3] Warren, 69.

February 4, 2018 Everyone Is Looking for You!
(Mark 1:29-39) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] When you do something wrong at home, do you ever get sent to your room? That was one of the punishments my parents used on my brother and me. But let me tell you, it was not a fair punishment. It wasn’t fair because my brother and I are very different people. I hated being alone. I always needed, or at least I always wanted someone to play with. I hated playing alone. I never had any hobbies because that meant sitting somewhere by yourself putting stamps or coins in an album or something like that. When I was growing up, my most popular question was, “Mom, can I call Tom, or Mike, or Matt, to see if they can come over to play?”

My older brother, Dan, however, loved being alone. He had several hobbies. He had a stamp collection, and he built model cars and airplanes. From an early age he knew he wanted to grow up to be an architect. He would stay up in his room for hours at a time and design his dream house. The thing I probably got most in trouble for was pestering Dan to play with me. And the thing that he got in trouble for was doing something mean to me so that I would leave him alone. So you see how unfair my parent’s punishment was? Being alone in his room was a reward for my brother, but for me it was utter torture.

In our gospel story today we read that Jesus got up very early in the morning, while it was still dark. He left the house and went to a deserted place, where he prayed. The gospels tell us several times that Jesus often went off by himself to pray to God. You see, Jesus needed to be alone with God so that he could do all the things he did. He needed to be alone with God so that he could preach to all the people he preached to, heal all the people he healed, and spend all the time he did teaching his disciples.

And that is one thing it has taken me many, many years to learn: I have learned to be by myself in a solitary place. But what I have learned is that I don’t have to be alone when I am by myself. If I pray, then I can be with God. So even though it took me many years to learn this, I don’t think you are ever too young to start learning. So the next time you are alone, remember that Jesus spent time alone too. He spent time alone praying to God. And so when you are alone, you too can pray to God and be with God. [End]

* * * * * * * * * *

I am going to say something that epitomizes the hypocritical preacher. But I am going to say it not because I am a hypocrite, but because I am honest, or at least I try my best to be appropriately honest. I am also going to say it because my guess is that I am not that much different than anyone else. Or rather that I am not alone in my failures. I assume that people in general fail in the same ways that I do. So, here goes: Do what I say, not what I do.

I say that because as I sat down to write my sermon, I realized that couldn’t say what I wanted to say and pretend that I completely practice what I wanted to preach. People say, “Preacher, practice what you preach. And if you don’t, you are a hypocrite.” Someone who is gracious, however, will say, “Preacher, do your best to practice what you preach. And don’t pretend that you are perfect.” And so, while I may not perfectly practice what I am preaching today, I am trying.

 So this past week I was sick for most of the week. Sickness can be God’s way of telling us that we need to slow down and take a break. I think I got sick not because God was trying to tell me anything, but because the flu is going around. But I guess I will never know because I really didn’t take the time to listen to God while I was sick. So here I was laying around for the better part of three days, and I failed to take the time I normally take to read scripture, pray, meditate, and just be alone with God. On Monday I just felt horrible, so doing much of anything but watching television was pretty difficult. But on Tuesday I worked from home most of the morning and some of the afternoon. And on Wednesday I again worked from home. And then on Thursday my to-do list was still pretty big, so I skipped my devotional time and jumped right into work. I guess my thought was that since I was sick I had better put all the energy I did have into getting the work done that needed to get done.

But that is exactly the kind of thinking each of us needs to get over in order to make time spent alone with God part of our daily or weekly routine. We have to get over the thinking that our agenda, our to-do list, our responsibilities for work or family or whatever are ultimately important and time spent with God is only as important as the time that we can fit it in. Part of our problem is that we think that quantity is more important that quality. We can get a lot done in a certain amount of time. It can be impressive. But at the end of the day the real issue is, the eternal issues is, what type of person have you been? What is the quality of your actions? Are they loving, kind, just, and gracious? Have your actions contributed to the peace and justice God desires for this world? What do you think God really wants from you? A scratched off to-do list that is a mile long, or a person who reflects the heart of Christ? What do you think your kids want from you? What is it that your friends want from you? A list of things that you have done with them or for them? Or a relationship of trust and love?

And what is it that shapes us into a person who reflects the heart of Christ? It seems pretty obvious that corporate worship and solitary prayer time were essential for Jesus. The gospels report several times that Jesus regularly went off by himself to pray to God. They also say several times that Jesus attended the synagogue as a regular practice. Think about that for a moment. We know that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. We know that he was, is God. Yet he was also fully human. So even Jesus had to have regular spiritual practices in order to maintain his relationship with God and to enable him to be the preacher, teacher, and healer he was. He could only do so much because he invested time with God. He could only be so much, so caring, loving, merciful, and gracious, because he spent time with God.

These past few weeks we have been talking about different kinds of wilderness experiences. We have looked at different ways we have been exiled from God. But last week we began to explore how God often uses the desert, the wilderness, whatever form that may take for us, as a means to bring us back to him, to bring us back from exile. In his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Beldon Lane notes how indifferent the desert is to our human situation. He writes, “The desert scoffs at much we hold dear.”[1] The desert doesn’t distinguish between humans. It treats us each the same. It doesn’t care about our wealth, or our poverty. It is blind to our race, our gender, our social reputation. It ignores our accomplishments and our failures. Lane writes, “We cross its sands – unwelcomed, stripped of influence and reputation, the desert caring nothing for the worries and warped sense of self-importance dragged along behind us.”[2]

In our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus begins his healing ministry. Last week he cast out his first demon. This week he goes to the home of Simon, that is, Peter, and Andrew. There Jesus heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and word about him spreads. Soon all the people in the town bring to Jesus all those who were sick or demon-possessed. Jesus heals them and casts out the demons. Jesus’ reputation grows. His popularity sky rockets. He is becoming a local celebrity.

But very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!” Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” (35-38).

Jesus goes off to a solitary place to escape the popularity contest, to escape the drive to succeed, to escape the demands placed upon him by everyone else. By himself, just as himself, he meets with God. And there his is reminded of who he truly is, of whose he truly is, and what his mission is. All those extraneous things get stripped away so that he can focus on being faithful to God the Father and to his mission to proclaim the good news of the coming kingdom of God.

Sickness can be a form of the wilderness for us. It is a form of exile. Like the desert a virus cares not about all the things we spend our days worrying about. A virus lays our weaknesses and our dependence bare. When we are sick, if we are attentive, we can take some time to recognize that we are all, at base, merely human. Sickness strips away many of those things we strive after day after day. Sickness doesn’t care how we look or how much money we make. When we are sick, the thing we desire most is just to feel better and have the strength and stomach to live a normal day. And when we are sick, we are made aware that we need healing. We can’t heal ourselves. Healing is something that happens to us. And so, if we allow it, sickness can be that place of wilderness that brings us in solitude before God and that opens us up to his grace that shapes our hearts.

Now, before I continue, I want to mention two caveats lest we romanticize sickness. First, while a virus may be indifferent to our social standing, our wealth, and other aspects of our human condition, poverty and injustice are not indifferent to human health. Someone once said, “The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor.”[3] The rich are better fed, live in healthier environments, and have other advantages that buffer them from getting sick and enable them to get treatment early so that a cough doesn’t turn into pneumonia. The poor and oppressed are more vulnerable and thus morely likely to become sick, and once sick you are spending more resources on your health, thus you stay poor, and you enter into a vicious cycle. So while sickness may be indifferent to our individual social and economic differences, such differences contribute to our health and well-being. Just because God can use sickness for good does not mean we should ignore the social, environmental and political factors that lead to greater rates of sickness and lack of access to healthcare among the poor and the oppressed.

Second, it is a mystery why God sometimes chooses to heal us, and sometimes waits until tomorrow, and sometimes it feels as though tomorrow never comes. While God may use sickness as a means to our healing and spiritual growth, it does not mean that we should welcome sickness in ourselves or that we should dismiss it in others. The right response to sickness, whether in ourselves or in others, is sorrow, compassion, and whatever we can do to bring healing, comfort, and strength.

So whatever form of wilderness you may be experiencing, or perhaps the next time you are sick, I encourage you to use your wilderness to be alone with God. And then use that experience to begin or fortify a regular practice of taking time alone with God, be that daily, or every other day, or weekly, whatever fits your period and station in life. Solitude and silence before God can strip us of all those things we think are so important, and all those things we spend our time chasing after that God is really indifferent to. When we come before God in silence and solitude, we come before him as just a mere human beings, which means as those who are made in his image, as those who are loved, and as those God wants to be in communion with. In his presence we are reminded that we are all in need of healing of one kind or another. And there we recognize that we can’t heal ourselves. And so, like the crowds flocking to Jesus to be healed, silence and solitude before God enables us to come before him and receive his healing touch. A touch that may heal our physical ailments or may not. But a touch that over time heals our spiritual ailments and transforms us more and more into people who reflect the heart of Christ. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silent prayer and meditation)

Almighty and every-living God, you Son, Jesus Christ, healed the sick and restored them to wholeness. Look with compassion on the anguish of the world, and shape our hearts that we may respond to it with the love and compassion of Jesus Christ, for it is in his name that we pray. Amen.

[1] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 191.

[2] Lane, 195.

[3] U2, “God Part II,” Rattle and Hum (Island, 1988).

January 28, 2018 Possession
(Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13) There is no audio for this sermon.

[Children’s sermon] I wonder what you would do to know what is in this bag. Maybe I have some cookies in this bag. Maybe I have some money. Maybe I have some tickets to the circus. But I wonder what you would do to know what is in this bag. Would you pay me some money? Maybe if you gave me all a quarter I would let you look in this bag. Maybe I would let you look in this bag if you promised to share whatever is in here with all the other kids in the church. It is my job this month to straighten all the hymnals and bibles out and to pick up all the trash before the service. Maybe if you promised to help me do that next week, I would let you look in this bag to see what I have that you do not have.

In his letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul writes that “Knowledge puffs up.” If I know something that you don’t, I might think that I am better than you. I might think that I am smarter than you. I might use what I know to get you to do something for me. Maybe you know someone in school who thinks they know everything and so they think they are better than everyone else.

But is knowledge really that important? What do you think is more important: knowledge or love? Well, let me show you what is in this bag – nothing. There is nothing in this bag. Compared to love, knowledge is like this empty bag; it is worth nothing. Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” What God and Jesus want from us  is not so much that we know things about him and the world, but that we use what we know in order to love others. He wants us to use our knowledge to help others, to heal others, and to encourage others. He wants us to use our knowledge to build others up.

Would you pray with me? Dear God, thank you for all the knowledge about you and your world that we learn in school, in Children’s worship, in Sunday School, and in our own homes. Help us to use the knowledge you give us to love you and others. Amen. [End].

* * * * * * * * * *

Mark begins his gospel with some rather auspicious words: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” When we as Christians hear the term “gospel,” we probably assume that there is really only one gospel, or well, maybe four – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We assume that there is only one gospel and that it is the good news, for that is what gospel means, the good news about Jesus. We assume, in short, that “gospel” is a Christian term. Likewise, we assume that “Son of God” defines Jesus as the second person of the Trinity. The good news is that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, has become the Messiah, the savior of the world.

When Mark wrote his gospel, however, the term gospel was often associated with Imperial politics. Inscriptions have been found that speak about the good news, not of Jesus, but of Caesar Augustus. In these inscriptions Caesar Augustus is proclaimed to be the savior of the whole Roman world, and all the nations Rome has subjugated. Through his power and strength he has overcome Rome’s enemies and brought salvation and peace and prosperity to the entire Empire. Moreover, in these pronouncements Caesar is often called not only Savior, but Son of God, for beginning with Caesar Augustus the Emperors of Rome were worshipped as semi-divine beings. In Mark’s world, the gospel had to do with Caesar.

Mark’s introduction is therefore an immediate political challenge to Caesar. Mark sets the story of Jesus over against the story of Caesar. Who is it that brings true salvation and peace? Who is the true Son of God?  Last week we saw that Jesus himself has an answer to that question: “The time has come,” he proclaims in v. 15, “The Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.”

In the movies there seems to be a particular technique used to highlight several important events in the story in a short amount of time. If the movie is about a sports team, they will splash several newspaper headlines before you, one after the other announcing the team’s victory over each successive opponent. If the movie is about a politician the shots will be of the politician giving a speech before the De Motte Society of Concerned Citizens, and then the Pipe Fitters Union in Chicago, then at the Am. Vets lodge in Milwaukee. The effect is to give the viewer snapshots of what is happening, showing major progress and development in the story without taking up much time.

I think Mark may have developed this technique. Mark doesn’t spend any time like Matthew and Luke with genealogies, or birth stories, or stories of when Jesus was young. He jumps right into the action after making his brazen announcement that the good news is about Jesus who is the true Son of God. He gives us a brief snapshot of John the Baptist, quickly relates the baptism of Jesus, and skips all the details of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. After only 13 verses, John is already in prison, and Jesus is preaching throughout Galilee. He then calls his first disciples and starts healing people and casting out demons.

We see a quick succession of snapshots and then Jesus dives head first into his ministry. And the people respond. In verse 21 we read, “They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law.” And after Jesus liberates a man who is possessed by a demon, Mark says, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching – and with authority! He even gives orders to unclean spirits and they obey him.’ News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” In the span of 14 verses Jesus has moved from an unknown nobody to the most talked about man in Galilee.

By chapter 2 Jesus’ popularity arouses the suspicion of the religious leaders. We read another round of quick snapshots in which Jesus tangles with the Teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. In chapter 3:6 we read, “the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians, that is there arch-enemies, how they might kill Jesus.” The good news of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, comes into quick and deadly conflict with King Herod, the representative of Caesar.

While Jesus’ popularity with the people arouses the suspicion of the religious leaders and thus develops the theme of the clash between Jesus and Caesar, Jesus’ popularity with the crowds is problematic in its own right. The crowds are amazed with Jesus. They recognize something different about him. But do they recognize what Jesus is really about? Do the disciples even get what Jesus is about? In the first half of the gospel Jesus is constantly having to explain things to the disciples and he upbraids them several times for totally missing the point. In the second half of the gospel, the disciples seem deaf to Jesus’ teaching that he must go to Jerusalem to be killed. And when Jesus is finally arrested, everyone abandons him. The disciples flee to save their own skins and the crowds turn on him. The gospel ends with the women running away from the tomb, scared out of their wits at the news from the angel that Jesus has risen from the dead. We are left hanging, wondering will the women get it? Will they tell the disciples, and will they get it? And will the disciples tell the crowds, and will they get it?

So while the crowds are impressed with Jesus in our text, we ought to look upon their enthusiasm with a bit of suspicion. Their amazement is a mile wide and an inch deep. Why are they really impressed with Jesus? Do they understand the true nature of Jesus’ authority? Or are they just impressed with Jesus’ power to order demons around? What is the difference, for that matter, between power and authority?

One could argue that Caesar’s authority comes from his power. Power is the ability to do something, to effect things. Authority, however, as I see it, is having not only to power to do things, but the right to do them. If you have authority, you are authorized to do things. A thief has the power and ability to break into your house and steal things. The police have the authority to arrest the him and throw him in jail. One of the problems with our world is that, without a moral base, authority is often given to or taken by those with the power. Rome rules over Jerusalem because Rome has the power to do so. In Rome’s eyes, their power gives them the right to rule.

Another problem with our world is that we often agree with this logic. We are impressed by power. We are, in a sense, possessed by power.  Many who supported Donald Trump for the presidency were impressed by his power and his wealth. They granted him authority because he promised to get things done. But are we all not impressed with power? We all want politicians who can get things done. We buy computers and smart phones because of the power they give us. We desire higher and higher salaries because of what we can do with our money. Money gives us power to travel, to educate our kids, to buy expensive clothes, and to eat at our favorite restaurants.

In many of our circles here at HPC, we deal with another currency of power – knowledge. In the university knowledge is power. It is knowledge, such as breakthrough research, that gets professors bigger and bigger grants, and larger and larger reputations. It is knowledge that leads to publishing papers and books. It is through knowledge that many of your careers advance. We are drawn to the power of knowledge.

The Apostle Paul, however, says that knowledge puffs up. Within the Christian community in Corinth, some of the Christians knew the truth that there is only one God, “the Father, from whom all things come,” writes Paul, “and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.” This knowledge gave them the freedom and the power to eat the meat they bought in the marketplaces, meat that was taken from the sacrifices made to the pagan gods. Other Christians, however, were scandalized by this. They were still new to the idea that the gods they used to worship were not really gods. They saw eating such meat as idolatrous. So Paul urges  the Christians with such knowledge to refrain from using it for the sake of those who might be scandalized. He, in sense, acknowledges their power to eat the meat, but insists that their authority to do so, their right to do so, should be guided by love. For true authority derives from love.

We have been looking these past few weeks at different ways in which we experience exile and the wilderness. In our gospel lesson the man who is demon possessed obviously experiences exile because of his condition. He was probably ostracized by his community and his family and considered a danger to them. But Jesus uses his power with love to set him free and to reunite him with the community.

I have argued that on another level it is the crowds who are also in exile. They are amazed by Jesus’ power and they say by his authority, but they don’t truly understand his authority which derives from the love and leads him to the cross. When push comes to shove, they abandon him. They don’t want that kind of authority.

You see, since the Garden of Eden, we humans have been enthralled with knowledge that gives us power. Adam and Eve sought the knowledge that would give them god-like power, the power to know good and evil. We desire our own power rather than trusting in the love and in the power and in the authority of God. And for that Adam and Eve were exiled from the garden. Our desire for such knowledge and power can drive us as well from the presence of God. For when we desire such power, we are far from the heart of God.

Exile from God, however, time spent in the wilderness, is not just a punishment from God, or a natural result of the fact that our sin repels us from God. The wilderness can be a place that God uses for our transformation. The wilderness is the place where God taught Israel, and then even Jesus, true reliance upon him and trust in him. In the wilderness ones needs are made strikingly apparent and desires are aroused because of the starkness of the environment.

In the early centuries of the Christian church, soon after Rome adopted the Christian religion under Constantine, soon after Christianity began to be domesticated by the power of the Empire, certain church leaders fled to the deserts of Egypt and the Sinai. They wanted to escape the lure of power that came with the wedding of the church and state. In the desert they found that two virtues led them to avoid the temptations of power and to embrace love: apatheia and arupnia.[1]

Apatheia, from which we get apathy, is a stance of indifference. In order to survive in the desert one had to become indifferent to the difficulties of living in the desert, the lack of water, and food. One had to be indifferent to the lack of community. One had to become indifferent to the many desires the lack of all these things aroused in you.

But true apatheia is not indifference to all things. It is indifference to the things that don’t truly matter. This is so because apatheia was paired with arupnia, or attentiveness. One had to pay attention to see where water collected in the desert. One had to be attentive to one’s health and strength lest one become sick with no one around to help. Ultimately one had to become attentive to God, to his blessings, to his presence, to his guiding you to know what is truly important.

In Jesus we see apatheia and arupnia developing into love. Jesus is indifferent to the opinions of the crowds. He is indifferent to the judgments of the religious leaders. He is indifferent to the power that comes with the terms Messiah, Son of God, and King. But his indifference to these things enables him to be attentive to those who come to him to be healed, to be exercised of demons, to be taught about the Kingdom of God. Love, you see, is being attentive the true needs of those who are placed in front of you.

Friends in Christ, let us not be amazed by the powers and authorities of this world, but let us be attentive to that which really matters so that we may follow our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] See Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 196 ff.